Stories tagged The Water Cycle, Weather and Climate

Dec
10
2007

A nice and tidy future: And, see, there are still trees!
A nice and tidy future: And, see, there are still trees!Courtesy NASA
Aren’t you tired of the rainforest already? Who’s with me on this? Who else is sick of tapirs and spider monkeys? Show me a tapir that can fetch a Frisbee, or a spider monkey that can be prepared in under five minutes and we’ll talk, but I don’t see those things happening any time soon. A don’t get me started on rainforest themed television! Please, people, as far as good TV goes, the rainforest was tapped out about ten years ago. National Geographic needs to move on, maybe get it self a new image (I’m thinking something along the lines of The O.C. That was a show I could get behind).

Wouldn’t it be good for everyone if there were a little (or a lot) less rainforest? I mean, think about this: in Minnesota, we have zero (0) rainforests, and an annual death-by-poison dart frog rate of zero (0). In Brazil, they have one (1) rainforest, and an annual death-by-poison dart frog rate of, um, greater than zero (>0). Do the math – that’s bad.

Well, good news is here at last: we’re winning! A new report by the World Wildlife Fund claims that not only can that great bastion of ho-hum, the Amazon rainforest, be defeated, but that it’s happening right now, faster than we had ever dared hope! 60 percent of the Amazon could be gone within 25 years!

The agents of deforestation have been hard at work for decades, but their progress has never been quite fast enough for me. See, they don’t hate the rainforest (not like I do, anyway), and their chopping and burning has been dictated by economic pressures for more agricultural land (primarily livestock pasture). Fortunately, it seems that the magic of climate change will be picking up the slack here.

The Amazon rainforest plays a significant role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. When it is slashed and burned (the preferred method for clearing more agricultural space) it not only releases lots of carbon, but it is then, of course, unable to absorb any more. The rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere then contributes to climate change, which, it is believed, will lower rainfall rates in Amazonia over the course of the next several decades. The lower rainfall will then result in more forest fires. It’s what they call a “delicious circle.”

These are exciting times we live in! What do you all think? Does anybody have any other ideas on how we could hurry the destruction of the rainforest along? Be creative! Have fun! Like, maybe we could all buy a piece of teak furniture, and then throw it away to make room for… our new teak furniture! Or we could try re-branding the rainforest – I’m thinking something along the lines of “the tropical painforest,” or “the land of root canals and dead puppies.” The second one doesn’t have quite the same ring as “painforest,” but I like how it gets right to the point.

So? Any ideas?

Dec
05
2007

Snow? Yeah, I’ve got a few words for snow...: Does environment influence language?  Not as much as you might think.
Snow? Yeah, I’ve got a few words for snow...: Does environment influence language? Not as much as you might think.Courtesy drp

After this week's storms, the people of Minnesota have developed many new words for snow -- most of which are unprintable on a family blog. But do the Eskimos, who live along the Arctic Ocean and deal with far more snow than we ever do, have an unusually large vocabulary to describe the fluffy white stuff?

Not really. Though the legend does have some basis in fact.

In the 1930s, anthropologists Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir argued that
language, thought and experience influenced one another. They believed that not only did a people’s environment shape their language (the “100 words for snow” idea), but that language also shaped environment – or, at least, the ways you could think about your environment. According to Whorf, the grammar and vocabulary of a people strongly influence how they see the world -- if you have no word for something, you can't really think about it.

Whorf did experiments which gave some support to the second part of the theory. But no one has been able to compile much evidence for the first part. Thus, most linguists today find the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis incomplete, and instead advance theories that the capacity for language is “hard-wired” into every human brain.

So, what about Eskimo words for “snow”? Well, that’s hard to answer, because Inuit languages (Inuit being the largest culture commonly referred to as "Eskimo") make extensive use of morphemes--“sub-words” that can be added to a root word to alter its meaning. Kind of like prefixes and suffixes in English.

Anyway, linguists have found about 15 Inuit root words relating to snow and snow phenomena, which is not that much different from the number of such words in English. But the use of morphemes in Inuit greatly increases the number of snow-related terms.

A good summary of the issue can be found here.

Want to hear what Inuktitut, a Canadian Inuit language, sounds like? Go here.

To learn more about life in the Arctic, check out our Object of the Month for December, a pair of Inuit snow goggles.

Dec
01
2007

All hail to the beer fridge!: Canadian beer drinkers are destroying the planet, but having too good a time to notice.
All hail to the beer fridge!: Canadian beer drinkers are destroying the planet, but having too good a time to notice.Courtesy Brian Warren

Canadians love their beer. However, possessing only the standard number of kidneys (2), they must drink it slowly, and store it until they are ready. To keep their cold ones, er, cold, they have developed the tradition of the “beer fridge” – an old, used refrigerator, kept in the garage or the basement, and used just for beer and snacks. (Newer, nicer fridges go in the kitchen.)

But a new study by the Canadian government claims that this piece of native culture is wrecking the environment. The old refrigerators use more energy than newer models. Researchers have suggested buy-back programs, which basically amounts to taxpayers buying me a new fridge. Finally, a government subsidy we can all get behind!

There’s no reliable data on the energy consumption of the beer-launching fridge, clearly the greatest achievement in the history of civilization.

Nov
30
2007

Is the number of hurricanes rising, or are we just getting better at counting them?
Is the number of hurricanes rising, or are we just getting better at counting them?Courtesy NASA

The 2007 hurricane season ends today, and by most accounts it was fairly typical, with 14 named storms and 5 hurricanes. But Neil Frank, former director of the National Hurricane Center, thinks those numbers are inflated. He argues that several of the named storms were not, in fact, strong enough to merit special designation.

According to the article, better storm-tracking technology has allowed scientists to identify and accurately measure weather events which, in years past, might not have merited “storm” designation, or might have been missed altogether.

Some people argue that this is an example of “climate change hype” – exaggerating the number of strong storms to make climate change look more severe than it actually is. Blogger Glenn Reynolds has perhaps a more charitable explanation: people in any profession want their field to seem important. If you’re in the hurricane business, then you get more attention – and more funding – if there are more hurricanes.

Earlier Buzz discussions of the 2007 Hurricane season can be found here and here.

Oct
18
2007

Gone fishing?: Where have the walleye's gone on Minnesota's Lake Mille Lacs? Fall surveys this year show about half the number of fish in the state's "walleye factory" than typically are found. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Gone fishing?: Where have the walleye's gone on Minnesota's Lake Mille Lacs? Fall surveys this year show about half the number of fish in the state's "walleye factory" than typically are found. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The walleye is Minnesota’s state fish. And the No. 1 lake to catch walleyes in the state is generally considered to be Lake Mille Lacs. But fish population censuses conducted this summer on Minnesota’s walleye factory have fisheries managers scratching their heads.

You may have read or heard some of the headlines about this in recent days. Some of those reports sensationalized the situation. While the walleye numbers are down on the lake, they’re by no means at critical conditions, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports.

Routine testing done on the lake this summer corralled only about half the usual number of walleyes as the average number collected between 193 and 2006, the DNR says. The tests, conducted near shorelines are done annually to monitor fish populations and size.

“We expected some decline in walleye numbers based on a number of factors, including a weak 2004-year class of walleye,” said DNR Fisheries Chief Ron Payer. But the magnitude of this year’s decline was unanticipated.”

This year’s net catches averaged 7.2 walleyes per net compared to the 15.4 average from the previous 14-year average of 15.4 walleyes per net. Similar sampling done last year collected 20.4 walleyes per net.

So why the big drop?

Payer said that warm lake water, particularly in June, may have played a significant role in the drop. Warmer water temps stress fish and hooking mortality rate goes up as water temperatures go up, as well.

Is the situation critical?

Not yet, Payer said. But the reason the DNR does the annual walleye population survey is to gather data on setting limits for the coming fishing season. And there’s no doubt, he said, that those regulations will likely be tightened in 2008.

But he added that Mille Lacs still has a strong number of spawning-sized fish.

Payer said anglers should know Mille Lacs continues to hold good numbers of spawning-sized fish. Still, the new data means the DNR will need to revisit regulations to ensure the lake’s walleye harvest stays within the safe harvest level and the state’s allocation. No walleye harvest overage will be allowed in 2008 due to the lower than anticipated number of walleye in recent population assessments.

Because of several factors, Mille Lacs’ walleye population is regulated differently than other Minnesota lakes. Through a treaty with the Chippewa Indian bands negotiated in 1837, those bands have significant fishing rights on the lake. Those rights are taken into account with sport fishing limits each year in managing Mille Lacs’ walleye population.

This past year, sport anglers could only take four walleyes a day. They had to be between 14 and 16 inches in length, with the exception made for one walleye longer than 28 inches long. Earlier in the season, the limits were actually less restrictive, but heavy fishing success in the early part of the summer required tightening the Mille Lacs limits.

Regulations for the 2008 open water season will be established in February 2008 and go into effect with the walleye opener on May 12.

So do you have a theory on what's happened to the walleyes? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Minnesota DNR press release on Mille Lacs walleye numbers

Oct
14
2007

Fitting that something called a "bore" would be found in Iowa: Photo by NASA.  Minnesota trash-talk by Gene
Fitting that something called a "bore" would be found in Iowa: Photo by NASA. Minnesota trash-talk by Gene

Colliding masses of air over Des Moines, Iowa on October 3 formed waves of clouds known as an undular bore. (Time-lapse video at the link.)

What happened was an approaching thunderstorm plowed into a mass of stable, cold air, like the prow of a ship plowing through the water. This set up huge waves in the air, which rippled over Des Moines. Winds would whip around 180° as the waves rolled by.

Scientists think these types of waves may be more common than we know, and may play a big role in violent weather.

Oct
05
2007

Mussel control: A swarm of zebra mussels have attached themselves to this larger regular mussel. The invasive species has been spreading across the U.S. and have now shown up in three Ramsey County lakes, part of many east-metro area drinking water supplies. But their pressence doesn't impact the drinkability of the water. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Mussel control: A swarm of zebra mussels have attached themselves to this larger regular mussel. The invasive species has been spreading across the U.S. and have now shown up in three Ramsey County lakes, part of many east-metro area drinking water supplies. But their pressence doesn't impact the drinkability of the water. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
I would have expected this from television news, but this was actually a breaking news story on the Star Tribune website today: zebra mussels have been found in three local lakes that provide water to municipal drinking water systems to east metro cities. A little further into the piece, it does remind us that zebra mussels do not affect the quality of drinking water. The only significant public health issue, I guess, is that the mussels can congregate around and clog up intake pipes for the water systems.

Here’s some other breaking news, from me, about our water supplies: geese poop in them, huge carp (and assorted other fish) die in them, and lots of other natural but nasty things occur there as well. That’s why we have water treatment plants and add chemicals that help purify our water.

What’s distressing is that the spread of zebra mussels is now jumping from the Mississippi River into other local bodies of water where they have no natural predators to control their numbers. And the article barely addresses that issue.

Oct
04
2007

The author personally investigates Indonesian flora: Photo by Ranti Junus
The author personally investigates Indonesian flora: Photo by Ranti Junus

And Borneo. And Bali. And Banjarmasin. The southeast Asian country of Indonesia plans to plant 79 million trees on a single day -- November 28. The event will take place ahead of a UN climate change meeting on Bali the following month.

Indonesia has cut down more tropical forests since 2000 than any other country. It is also the world's third-largest producer of greenhouse gases. It is hoped that this massive planting project will reverse these trends.

Many of the rainforests have been cut down to make room for palm oil plantations, which are expanding to produce raw material for biofuel -- another example of how everything is interconnected, and trying to solve a problem in one area can create a problem in another.

(Indonesia's entry into the biofuel market strikes me as odd, since they are a major oil-producing nation and a member of OPEC.)

Sep
22
2007

Blue cloud skies: This noctilucent cloud was photographed last summer over the United Kingdom. The bluish-glowing clouds are showing up the sky much more often, possibly due to global warming. (Photo by Alex Lloyd-Ribeiro)
Blue cloud skies: This noctilucent cloud was photographed last summer over the United Kingdom. The bluish-glowing clouds are showing up the sky much more often, possibly due to global warming. (Photo by Alex Lloyd-Ribeiro)
The reports are coming in more frequently of weird sights in the evening sky. And we’re not talking about people seeing UFOs.

What they’re seeing are noctilucent clouds. The clouds look like your regular cirrus cloud but as the sun has set, they shimmer with a blue, electric glow that can be seen from people on the ground. According to researchers, they form in the summer about 50 miles high in the sky. They’ve been seen as far back in time as the 1800s, but their reports are becoming more frequent, possibly because of global climate change thanks to increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Want to see a variety of photos of noctilucent clouds? Check out this website of such clouds seen in Europe.

In fact, you can’t see the clouds during the daytime. They only begin to appear at dusk when most sunlight is gone, but some sun rays can still illuminate that high clouds that are floating along the edge of space.

A theory for why noctilucent clouds are more regularly appearing is that greenhouse gases are deflecting heat from the highest levels of the atmosphere. That allows more ice crystals to thrive at that level and form into these special clouds. That same principle also may be deflecting more moisture into the upper atmosphere, providing more material for the clouds to form with.

This past spring NASA launched a special satellite to watch and gather data about these growing cloud formations. The project is called AIM – Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere.

Sep
18
2007

Underwater mobile home: Aquarius is the underwater home for researchers for their current nine-day mission off the coast of Florida. The tube is about the same size as a school bus.
Underwater mobile home: Aquarius is the underwater home for researchers for their current nine-day mission off the coast of Florida. The tube is about the same size as a school bus.
As the like to say in “The Godfather,” do you want to sleep with the fishes?

A team of six scientists – aquanauts – Monday started a nine-day project where they’re living and working 24-7 60 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean on Florida’s reefs. They’ve set up Aquarius Reef Base about nine miles southeast of Key Largo.

And you can be there virtually with an Internet link up. Real-time updates and video feeds are available at www.oceanslive.org or www.uncw.edu/nurc/aquarius.

Crew quarters: Inside Aquarius, scientists can watch what their partners are doing out on the ocean floor. And we can watch what they're doing through Internet connections. (Photos from www.uncw.edu/nurc/aquarius)
Crew quarters: Inside Aquarius, scientists can watch what their partners are doing out on the ocean floor. And we can watch what they're doing through Internet connections. (Photos from www.uncw.edu/nurc/aquarius)
The research will be focusing on the marine habitats around the reef and impacts that rising water temperatures and human pollution might be having on that environment.

Aquarius is school bus-sized tube with a diameter of nine feet that the aquanauts will be living in. And it’s actually been at that location for 21 years. Inside Aquarius, the researchers have bunk beds, showers, a microwave oven and computers to handle their Internet link ups.

Some of the experiments and research the aquanauts will be doing will gather data to compare with findings from earlier dives. A special focus on this dive will be to gather more information about sponges and soft corals of the area.