Stories tagged The Water Cycle, Weather and Climate


Extreme heat, fires, and flooding

Weather hazard
Weather hazardCourtesy NOAA
In my previous post about our global warming trend you were told to expect more extreme rainfalls and record setting heat. Examples of each have recently made the news.

Globally, at least 14 different countries have reported all-time record high temperatures this year. AOL News

  • Moscow, Russia 102° F
  • Maryland and Virginia 105° F
  • Finland 99° F
  • Saudi Arabia &Iraq 125.6° F
  • Pakistan 128.3° F

Russia declares fires "a natural disaster"

"President Dmitry Medvedev called the fires "a natural disaster" Discovery News

Hundreds of thousands of firefighters, including army troops battled forest fires raging across central Russia in a heat wave that has killed more than 30 people.

Devastating floods in China and Pakistan

Over a thousan people have died or are missing in central and southern China in the country's worst floods in more than a decade. The huge Three Gorges Dam, designed to withstand a 10,000 year flood, was within 20m of overflowing.

Over a million people are effected by the flooding in Pakistan. In Swat alone, the floods have destroyed more than 14,600 houses and 22 schools.


One of the many lakes of the Boundary Waters: It's a nice place.
One of the many lakes of the Boundary Waters: It's a nice place.Courtesy PxMa
On my way to the candy store last week, I ran into a very skinny young man with a clipboard. I mean, I didn’t really run into him—more like he called me over while I was trying to avoid eye contact. He was really skinny, though, and I thought maybe he needed help. See, I’m pretty skinny myself, so when I think someone might be too skinny, it could suggest a real problem. I thought I could at least direct him somewhere where he might buy a sandwich or something.

But, to my surprise, the young man had little to no interest in sandwiches. (I know! What?!) What he was interested in was my money, money I had been saving to spend on really important things, things like candy. The slender lad was fund-raising for an organization that’s lobbying against proposed mining in the Boundary Waters.

I felt like, “I don’t even have cable, and you want $30 a month? I’m looking out for Number 1 here, sir. Go buy yourself a sandwich.” wasn’t really an acceptable excuse for not giving away my credit card information on the sidewalk, so when I told him I’d “think about it” and ran away, what I meant was, “I’m going to think of a better excuse for next time we run into each other.” But I also promised him I’d look into the issue. (That wasn’t what he wanted, but whatevs.)

And I did look into the issue, at least a little bit.

The deal is that there’s a Minnesotan mining company partnered with a South American corporation that’s been exploring for metals near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Their test pits have revealed that there may be huge deposits of copper, nickel, gold, platinum and palladium in the area, and they want to dig it up.

And that’s cool, except that bringing up the metal-bearing ore also brings up toxic heavy metals (like lead, arsenic, and manganese), as well as lots of sulfide rock, which can release sulfuric acid into the environment. These mining byproducts can be tricky to contain anywhere, but the proposed mines are located in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. That means that any acidic or metal-contaminated water that leaks from the mines would flow into the lakes of the Boundary Waters, poisoning them.
Acid drainage from a mine: Very bad for the environment.
Acid drainage from a mine: Very bad for the environment.Courtesy SeanMack

So that’s no good. The mine owners, however, counter that the rocks in the area are very solid, and so very little water would seep through them to contaminate the watershed. They also claim that the waste rock produced would actually have very little sulfur in it, and would not produce acid pollution.

Ok, that’s good. Except mining opponents point out that environmental assessments of similar proposed mines in the area have returned grim results for the watershed, despite the companies’ claims that the mining operations wouldn’t pollute. Also, other mines in the region, like the Dunka pit, have produced so much pollution that cleanup operations have spanned decades.

Hmm. So what, then? One (i.e., me) is inclined to think that we shouldn’t be screwing around with an area as beautiful as the Boundary Waters, and that if it means mining a little less, that’s cool. So does Skinny get to dip into my precious candy fund? Maybe!

Except… how about this: maybe we really do want those metals. Probably most of us who feel particularly protective over areas like the Boundary Waters also feel like our reliance on fossil fuels is harming the environment. Burning those depleting hydrocarbons produces vast quantities of atmospheric pollutants, and to see the environmental dangers involved in just digging up the fossil fuels, we need look no further than the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. So how do we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels? With cool technology to make our vehicles more efficient, or to make larger, more powerful batteries, or to take advantage of other fuel sources.
Delicious palladium: Hydrogen storage, catalytic converters, fuel cells, capacitors, groundwater treatment... is there anything it can't do?
Delicious palladium: Hydrogen storage, catalytic converters, fuel cells, capacitors, groundwater treatment... is there anything it can't do?Courtesy Jurii

And what do we need for all of that equipment? A whole new set of natural resources which, as Minnesota Public Radio points out in their story on the mine controversy, includes copper, gold, platinum, and palladium, “metals that are used in everything from electric wires and computers to catalytic converters and rechargeable batteries.”

How might the consequences of the continued heavy use of fossil fuels eventually affect the Boundary Waters compared to mining in its watershed? Is it better to obtain these minerals in other parts of the world, so that it’s someone else’s problem? Are some environments more or less valuable than others? What if the mining takes place in a country with less-strict regulations for keeping a mine clean? And is there anything to the thought that, as fossil fuel users, we’re taking advantage of mining and drilling in other parts of the world, while we’re unwilling to let it happen in our backyard?

It’s probably not useful to divide the sides of the issue into either/or and good/bad. I want the Boundary Waters to be protected, and I’m against pollution-causing mining operations, but… it’s complicated.

Too complicated to figure out on my way to the candy store, anyway.

Any thoughts on this, folks? Negative environmental effects here… or there? Now or later? What do we really need? How should we get it? And from where? What are we willing to sacrifice for it? And, for that matter, what’s ours to sacrifice?



June continues 4 month trend of all-time record warmth

Warmest June ever
Warmest June everCourtesy NOAA
2010 just surpassed 1998 (Feb, Jul, Aug) for the most "warmest months" in any calendar year (NOAA via Science Digest

How hot and for how long?

The July 22 Scientific American asks if this is The New Normal? A week earlier they asked, "How Much Global Warming Are We Willing to Take?

The average temperature of the planet for the next several thousand years will be determined this century—by those of us living today


A new report from the National Research Council concludes that emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels have ushered in a new epoch where human activities will largely determine the evolution of Earth's climate.

Time to turn it down

I hope you will check out the links above and start to consider how our decisions will impact conditions on Earth for a long time.


Brown gold!: This is actually the solid byproduct of a manure-to-methane operation. As you can see, it holds no fear for the owner of this bare hand.
Brown gold!: This is actually the solid byproduct of a manure-to-methane operation. As you can see, it holds no fear for the owner of this bare hand.Courtesy kqedquest
We’ve talked about the delights of cow feces before on Science Buzz, but mid-July always puts me in the mind of “brown gold” (coincidentally, the last occasion it came up was exactly four years ago today), and any time there’s talk of turning an animal into a fuel source, I get excited. (Remember that fuel cell that ran on the tears of lab monkeys? Like that.) Why not take another look?

So here you are: another wonderful story of cows trying their best to please us, before they make the ultimate gift of allowing their bodies to be processed into hamburgers and gelatin and cool jackets.

Poop jokes aside (j/k—that’s impossible), it is a pretty interesting story. The smell you detect coming from cattle farms is, of course, largely from the tens of thousands of gallons of poop the cattle produce every day. The decomposing feces release lots of stinky methane. (Or, to be more precise, the methane itself isn’t smelly. The bad smell comes from other chemicals, like methanethiol, produced by poop-eating bacteria along with the methane.)

Aside from being, you know, gross, all of that poop is pretty bad for the environment. The methane is released into the atmosphere, where it traps heat and contributes to global warming (methane is 20 to 50 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas), and the poop itself is spread onto fields as fertilizer. Re-using the poop as fertilizer is mostly a good idea, but not all of it gets absorbed into the soil, and lots of it ends up getting washed away into rivers, lakes, and streams, where it pollutes the water.

Some farms have managed to address all of these problems, and make money while doing it.

Instead of spreading the manure onto fields right away, the farms funnel all the poop into swimming pool-sized holding tanks, where it is mixed around and just sort of stewed for a few weeks. All of the methane gas produced by bacteria as it breaks down the manure is captured in tanks. What’s left is a fluffy, more or less sterile, solid that can be used as bedding for the animals, or mixed in with soil, and a liquid fertilizer that can be spread onto fields.

The methane can then be used on-site to generate electricity, either by burning it in a generator, or using it in a fuel cell. (The methane is broken apart and combined with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, water, and carbon dioxide.) A large farm will produce enough electricity to power itself and several hundred other houses. (The extra electricity is just put back into the power grid and sold to the power company.)

Whether the methane is burned or used in a fuel cell, the process still creates carbon dioxide. However, CO2 isn’t nearly as bad as methane when it comes to trapping heat, and because the original source of the carbon was from plant-based feed, the process can be considered “carbon-neutral.” (Although one might argue that the fossil fuels involved in other steps of the cattle farming process could offset this. But let’s leave that be for now. It’s complicated.)

The downside is that setting up an operation to capture and process manure, and to generate power by burning it is expensive—it took about 2.2 million dollars to do it at the farm covered in the article, with about a third of that coming from grants. Still, the byproducts (electricity, fertilizer, soil/bedding) are profitable enough that the system could pay for itself over the course of a few years.

It’s amazing, eh? Out of a cow’s butt we get soft, clean bedding, liquid fertilizer, and electricity, all without the bad smell. What a world.


The Top Hat at work: As you can see, the device is currently unable to capture all of the oil.
The Top Hat at work: As you can see, the device is currently unable to capture all of the oil.Courtesy Library of Congress
BP: Do you know... is that oil well thing still leaking?
Someone else: Hmm. Probably? I haven't heard much about it lately. Let me check.
BP: Sweet. Thanks a mil.
Someone else: Yeah, it's totally leaking still.
BP: Oh, nuts. Ok... like, is it leaking a lot?
Someone else: Yeah.
BP: But didn't we do something about that? Like, we... dressed it up or something?
Someone else: The "Top Hat." You put a cap on it. But the cap is only capturing about 25,000 barrels a day.
BP: "Only" 25,000? Sounds like someone has unreasonably high standards...
Someone else: Could be. But the well is probably leaking about 60,000 barrels a day. Maybe more.
BP: Hmm... Well, we ought to do something about that. What about... what about...
Someone else: Yes?!
BP: What about some sort of cap to suck off the leaking oil. A big metal cap. Like... a giant top hat. Have we tried that?
Someone else: Yes, you've tried it a couple times.
BP: All right then! Operation Top Hat is go!

Bless their little hearts, BP is at it again. While national news overage of the Gulf oil leak seems to have slowed to a somewhat less frantic pace, the oil itself continues to flow. BP had placed a cap over the severed end of the drill riser, but, so far, was capturing only 25,000 barrels (about a million gallons) of oil a day. That number is nothing to sneeze at, of course, but official estimates place the daily flow of oil at about 60,000 barrels, possibly more.

Taking advantage of calmer seas this weekend, BP has been fitting a new cap on the leaking well. While they're reluctant to make any promises, BP claims that the new cap could potentially capture the entire flow of leaking oil. Also, the new cap has a device that could measure the overall flow rate, and it should be able to more easily disconnect and reconnect with the leak. Why would we ever want to disconnect the cap if it's capturing all the oil? Hurricane season is starting, disconnecting the cap in a bad storm could help prevent more damage to well and the oil-recovery equipment.

We'll see, eh?

Meanwhile, the first relief well is slightly ahead of schedule, and it could intersect with the blown well by the end of the month, at which point BP could begin to pump mud and cement into the well to shut it down entirely.


Fascinating article in the June 23 issue of Science. A major puzzle of paleoclimatology is why after tens of thousands of years of glacial conditions, recent ice ages have ended with relatively sudden warm ups. Six authors have devised a comprehensive hypothesis as to why. Here is my attempt to summarize the process:

  1. First, you need very large ice sheets around the Northern Hemisphere. These ice sheets are so large that they depress the continents, pushing them down into the Earth’s mantle.
  2. Next, the Milankovitch Cycle plays a role by increasing the amount of solar energy reaching the ice sheets during summer, resulting in large amount of melt water entering the North Atlantic. Sea levels rise worldwide and encourage extensive calving of icebergs from the continental glaciers lining the North Atlantic.
  3. The freshwater and icebergs result in the formation of vast areas of winter sea ice in the North Atlantic, abruptly returning the Northern Hemisphere to glacial conditions with severe winters.
  4. The return of glacial conditions to the Northern Hemisphere affects the atmospheric circulation of the entire planet, in particular causing a southward shift of westerly winds in the Southern Hemisphere that warm Antarctica and encourage the upwelling of carbon dioxide-rich deep water in the Southern Ocean.
  5. The glacial conditions in the Northern Hemisphere last long enough to encourage prolonged off gassing of carbon dioxide from upwelling Southern Ocean deep water, resulting in the crossing of a threshold where there is enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to tip the whole planet into a new interglacial warm period.

If this research holds up to scientific scrutiny, it will bear on the current global warming debates. Some have interpreted the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the end of the last ice age not as a cause of deglaciation but rather as an effect of deglaciation. These six authors see carbon dioxide as playing a key role in finally bringing to an end the last ice age because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.


Questions in the Clouds
A recent article in Scientific American described a study in which a few scientists interviewed 14 of their colleagues specializing in climate change to make predictions about three possible future scenarios: low, medium, and high degrees of global warming. The climate scientists were also asked to predict when Earth's climate might reach a tipping point and change so drastically that humans find it difficult to survive. As part of their response, they drew attention to factors that added caveats to their predictions. One of the biggest questions: what will the clouds do?

Low-level clouds are tricksy: Studies show that these low-level clouds, called stratocumulus, cause climate researchers to squeeze their stress balls.
Low-level clouds are tricksy: Studies show that these low-level clouds, called stratocumulus, cause climate researchers to squeeze their stress balls.Courtesy Benutzer:LivingShadow, Wikimedia Commons

As the climate changes, the atmosphere's behavior changes, too--making predictions difficult. Clouds are interesting characters because they both reflect sunlight and absorb it. Different types of clouds both reflect and absorb in different proportions, but their behavior also changes with the temperature, making them difficult to model. CMMAP is one organization working to improve cloud representations in models of Earth's climate. (And their website is loaded with great information about clouds!)

Since scientists began modeling climate change, there have been many ideas about how clouds will impact global warming. But they faced difficulties because many of the same questions asked about clouds in the 1950s remain unanswered today. Some researchers thought that low-level clouds would reflect more sunlight on warm days, thereby slowing global warming in its tracks.

Cumulonimbus: Vertical growth ain't no joke.
Cumulonimbus: Vertical growth ain't no joke.Courtesy Simon Eugster, Wikimedia Commons

Cloudy Answers
But research at NASA has shown that in general, low-level clouds reflect more sunlight on cold days and less sunlight on warm days. Further, as the oceans warm, low-level clouds dissipate. This had led scientists to predict that warming would initiate a positive-feedback cycle, whereby as the climate warmed, low-level clouds would dissipate and spur on further warming.

However, the low-level clouds are thought to be balanced out by clouds with vertical growth, which may expand and reflect more sun on warm days. Researchers think that these vertical clouds could mitigate some or all of the effects of clouds' behavior on global warming. Of course, it's important to keep in mind that scientists are still only beginning to unravel the mysteries of clouds and further research will be essential to create accurate models of their behavior.

Noctilucent: "Why you gotta be all up in my grill with your carbon, yo?"
Noctilucent: "Why you gotta be all up in my grill with your carbon, yo?"Courtesy Hrald, Wikimedia Commons

Signs from Above
Another type of cloud is important in climate change discussions as an indicator of global warming rather than an influence on climate: noctilucent clouds. These clouds occur higher in the atmosphere than any other. They used to be visible only from latitudes near the poles, but began appearing closer to the equator in recent years. Because noctilucent clouds can only form in very cold temperatures, their presence at lower latitudes indicates cooler temperatures high in the atmosphere than before. Researchers think that these cooler temperatures are caused by global warming--that phenomenon creates warmer temperatures near the surface by reflecting heat emitted by the surface back toward the surface. Before global warming, this heat would have escaped to higher areas of the atmosphere to warm them, making the formation of noctilucent clouds impossible at lower latitudes.

Of course, global warming isn't the only way we impact clouds…

Contrails: Not only do they give off greenhouse gases, jets mess with the clouds. Jerks.
Contrails: Not only do they give off greenhouse gases, jets mess with the clouds. Jerks.Courtesy NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Jets and Clouds
As if natural clouds weren't enough of a question mark, jets throw a monkey wrench in climate models, too. The contrails they leave behind can create pseudo clouds that alter temperatures by lowering daytime highs and decreasing nighttime lows because of the ways they reflect and absorb radiation. Jets also punch holes in natural clouds and cause immediate impacts on the weather.

And just 'cause I can't get enough, here's more cloud info.


Much attention and debate is focused on the role of human releases of carbon dioxide (CO2) in global warming and climate change but there is another facet of CO2 that deserves much more attention. Increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere lead to more and more CO2 dissolving into the oceans where it turns into carbonic acid. A story in the June 18 issue of Science reports that there is no doubt whatsoever that human releases of CO2 are acidifying the oceans at a scale unprecedented in the geologic record.

The closest analogue to present day appears to be the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) of 55.8 million years ago. Over the course of several thousand years, huge amounts of methane and CO2 entered the atmosphere (where the methane was quickly converted to CO2). Much of this CO2 dissolved into the oceans, causing a drop in ocean pH. The difference between the present and the PETM is that human releases of CO2 are occurring at a rate at least ten times faster. At takes about 1,000 years for CO2 dissolved in surface waters to reach the deep sea where sediments eventually neutralize the acid. Human releases of CO2 currently far exceed the rate at which the oceans are able to remove it and so the result is a rapid drop in the pH of surface waters.

Many ocean organisms make their shells from carbonate. Acidification changes carbonate into bicarbonate and hydrogen ions, making the mineral much less available to tropical corals, echinoderms, mollusks, and foraminifera. The danger if ocean acidification continues unabated is potentially dramatic and unpredictable changes in marine life everywhere.

Some policymakers and scientists increasingly are raising the idea of perhaps mitigating the effects of climate change through large-scale geoengineering projects intended to reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface as a last ditch effort to counteract the effects of greenhouse gas warming. Such projects would do nothing to mitigate the growing problem of our acidifying oceans. The only way to reduce ocean acidification is to reduce globally the quantities of CO2 that humans release into the atmosphere.


Double Exposure: A new photo exhibit at SMM!
We often hear about global warming as an invisible chemical process, but rarely do we meet its direct impacts face-to-face. A new exhibit on Level 6 puts the evidence right before your eyes, and it might just give you a chill. Double Exposure: Aerial Photographs of Glaciers Then and Now opened in early June and runs through Labor Day (Mon. Sept. 6). It compares old and new photos of glaciers in Alaska and the Alps. The exhibit is a precursor to the upcoming exhibit Future Earth, opening Fall 2011, which will ask, "How do we survive and thrive on a human dominated planet?" (More on Future Earth coming soon!)

How to get to the exhibit:
Stop by on your way to dine at the Elements Cafe! Take the lobby elevators or musical stairs to Level 6 and turn right. You can't miss it!

More about Double Exposure
Global climate change is more obvious in glaciers and oceans than it is in the atmosphere because air reacts very quickly to changes in temperature. Ice and water, on the other hand, react very slowly due to thermal inertia--they only show changes in temperature that are slow and build up over time. So, by the time a change shows up in the oceans or glaciers, we can conclude that it's a long-term cumulative effect rather than a temporary fluctuation. This is why the Double Exposure project is so important.

Double Exposure follows the work of David Arnold, a freelance journalist and photographer who set out to duplicate the work of photographer Bradford Washburn. Washburn had photographed glaciers in Alaska and the Alps in the 1930s and 1960s. To create a visual record of climate change, Arnold worked from 2005-2007 to photograph some of the same sites as Washburn from the same vantage points. As you compare the old and new images, you can see that significant melting and changes in the flow of water took place in as little as 45 years.

As a visitor to Double Exposure, you'll learn how to read a glacier and interpret the photographs yourself with the exhibit to guide you. You'll learn how Arnold solved the challenge of duplicating Washburn's photos with physics. You'll also learn about current impacts, trends, and potential solutions to global warming.
So, please come check out these amazing photos!


Tropical Storm Alex, which formed over the northwestern Caribbean Sea out of a westward-moving tropical wave on Friday and Saturday (June 26 and27), emerged overnight into the Bay of Campeche from the Yucatan Peninsula. Since emerging from that landmass as a tropical depression (signifying sustained winds weaker than 35 knots), it has strengthened back to Tropical Storm status. Current forecasts place it as a hurricane — possibly major — near the northern Mexico Gulf Coast later this week.