Stories tagged The Water Cycle, Weather and Climate

Sep
16
2007

Get your swimtrunks!: Next August is looking even better!  (image by toddraden on flickr.com)
Get your swimtrunks!: Next August is looking even better! (image by toddraden on flickr.com)
The Northwest Passage, a long-sought sea route from Europe to Asia, finally revealed itself this summer. The arctic sea ice that had made such a journey impossible until now has temporarily melted, thanks to Earth’s tidy new roommate, Global Warming.

The Northwest Passage has been theorized and sought after since the Fifteenth century, as European powers desired a faster sea route to Asia, via the north Atlantic. The Italian explorer, John Cabot, made the first attempt to find the passage in 1497, an act that would usher in half a millennia of failed expeditions. In the last century, several explorers have successfully traversed the waters of the Canadian arctic, although only with ice-fortified ships, and often through very shallow waterways. This August, however, sattelite images have confirmed a navigable and ice-free Northwest Passage.

Many climate models have predicted the opening of the passage with the onset of global warming, but none had suggested that it would happen so soon (predictions had ranged from 2012 to 2080). The waterways will certainly freeze over during the winter, although climate scientists expect that they will be open for increasing durations in summers to come.

John Cabot, after five hundred years of being lost at sea, was understandably nonplussed by the news. “It’s great, I guess,” says Cabot, “It’s just, I wish… argh.” The maritime explorer seemed excited about the prospect of faster trade with “the Orient,” however, as a route through the Arctic Ocean would cut 4000 miles off of a trip from Europe to Asia. On his future plans for international trade, Cabot simply stated, “Spices. Spices, and silks, and precious stones.”

Sep
13
2007

Whither global warming?: As scientists debate the findings, what are we supposed to do? Image from NOAA.
Whither global warming?: As scientists debate the findings, what are we supposed to do? Image from NOAA.

Discussions of global warming almost always include some allusion to “scientific consensus” – the idea that many / most / almost all scientists agree that the warming is real, is caused by humans, and/or will have catastrophic effects on the planet.

There have always been two problems with this:

  1. “Consensus,” while a wonderful thing in politics, is meaningless is science. It doesn’t matter how many people agree with a statement; all that matters is whether or not the statement can be verified by independent observation or experimentation.
  2. The “consensus” is not as universal as has sometimes been presented. Scientific studies that proclaim “we’re all doomed!” naturally get a lot more attention than those that say “everything is normal.” Unfortunately, this imbalance of attention has led some people to conclude that the scientific argument is one-sided, when this is far from the case.

Yesterday The Hudson Institute issued a press release counting 500 peer-reviewed scientific papers disputing some aspect of the global warming hypothesis. According to the report,

More than 300 of the scientists found evidence that 1) a natural moderate 1,500-year climate cycle has produced more than a dozen global warmings similar to ours since the last Ice Age and/or that 2) our Modern Warming is linked strongly to variations in the sun's irradiance. … Other researchers found evidence that 3) sea levels are failing to rise importantly; 4) that our storms and droughts are becoming fewer and milder with this warming as they did during previous global warmings; 5) that human deaths will be reduced with warming because cold kills twice as many people as heat; and 6) that corals, trees, birds, mammals, and butterflies are adapting well to the routine reality of changing climate.

What is The Hudson Institute?

Let’s not mince words: The Hudson Institute is not a scientific organization. It is a political think-tank; it supports conservative policies; and it receives funding from some major corporations. It is easy to imagine they simply reviewed thousands of published reports and simply picked the ones that happened to fit their world-view.

(Of course, Al Gore is not a scientist either; he has a liberal political agenda; and he gets money from political contributions. What’s more, the Clinton-Gore administration funded many of the reports he now uses to support his global warming hypotheses.)

None of that matters, though. The Hudson Institute isn’t claiming to have done any original scientific research. They are simply pointing to research that has already been done by other scientists which dispute some aspects of global warming, and thus undermine claims to “consensus.”

So, where do we go from here?

Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg has a new book out called Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming He has recently been interviewed by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Lomborg believes that global warming is indeed caused by human activity. But he argues that the dangers have been over-hyped, and that “Anti-warming policies (like those of the Kyoto Protocol) that require energy taxes or other checks on economic dynamism are inefficient and even harmful.” For example:

Mr. Lomborg cites studies showing that by implementing Kyoto--at a cost of trillions of dollars--we might be able to achieve a 3% reduction in fluvial and coastal flooding damages. If we instead adopted smart flood policies--e.g., an end to public subsidies that encourage people to settle in flood plains, a shrewder use of levees--we could achieve a 91% reduction in damages at a fraction of the Kyoto cost.

So, if global warming demands a response, it must be a clear-headed one – both scientifically (using all the information at our disposal, and not creating an artificial “consensus”) and socially (making rational decisions based on costs and benefits). As the Journal article notes, “[r]ather than governments imposing costly energy taxes to little benefit, Mr. Lomborg argues, they should fund research programs aimed at finding breakthrough technologies.”

* Tip of the hat to Douglas Adams

Aug
28
2007

Fire damage: Authorities check through a heavily fire-damaged area of Greece. Hugh wildfires have swept through the southern portions of the country and officials belief they've been deliberately set.
Fire damage: Authorities check through a heavily fire-damaged area of Greece. Hugh wildfires have swept through the southern portions of the country and officials belief they've been deliberately set.
After nearly a week of burning at an out-of-control pace, two people have been apprehended as possibly being responsible for the starting of huge wildfires that have been burning in Greece.

More than 50 people are known dead from the fires that have raced across southern Greece. Now in the line of fire is the city of Olympia, the home of the Olympic Games. As of Tuesday afternoon, no historic sites were damaged, but fires were moving close to a museum and archaeological center.

Through the weekend, about 45 villages had to be evacuated due to fire threats. Summer is always a severe time for wildfires in Greece, but this summer has been especially bad, authorities report, with more than 3,000 blazes.

And law enforcement is especially concerned about this latest wave of fires. A 65-year-old man was arrested based on accounts from people in the area seeing him torching areas. Officials are also looking for more leads on a gas canister device connected to a cell phone that was found in one of the wildfire sites. Authorities believe the arson actions could be tied to the upcoming Greek elections in mid September.

Also apprehended was a 77-year-old woman who was cooking in her garden when the fire got out of control and spread. She’s being charged for criminal negligence.

Aug
20
2007

Wet wheels: These two cars in Goodview, Minn., were getting lost in the flood waters from the heavy rains of the past weekend. (Flickr photo by ssoross)
Wet wheels: These two cars in Goodview, Minn., were getting lost in the flood waters from the heavy rains of the past weekend. (Flickr photo by ssoross)
If you told me a week ago we’d be hearing reports on flash floods in Minnesota, I’d have asked you what you’ve been smoking lately.

But after one of the driest summers we’ve had on recent record, that’s just where we found ourselves yesterday morning, hearing harrowing stories of flash floods ripping through homes, roads and anything else in their paths in six counties of southeastern Minnesota.

How could it all change so fast?

First you get an intense amount of rain – some cities in the flooded area reported single-day rainfalls of 10 to up to 17 inches. And that rain fell on some unusually formed land. The Mississippi River Valley cutting through the region has left some steep bluffs, allowing water a great chance to pick up steam from the high levels on down toward the lowlands.

Here’s a link to the Star-Tribune’s page of photos from the flood.

Have you experienced a flash flood?

I’ll tell you my story. Years ago on a guided trip through the Grand Canyon in September – the canyon’s rainy season – our guides would not let us get ahead of them on hikes on the side canyons because of the threat of flash floods in side canyons. The slightest glimpse of a dark cloud overhead had them sending us back out of the slot canyons to avoid the danger. I thought it was all part of the showmanship of their work. A few days later while motoring along on our raft, we saw a flash flood come gushing out of a side canyon, carrying boulders, tree trunks and anything else the flood found in its path. The continuing rumble was like the sound of five jets taking off at the same time. I’ve got a new-found respect for flashfloods after that.

Share your story here with other Science Buzz readers.

Aug
13
2007

Timber: Strong winds that form out of thunderstorms can topple huge trees pretty quickly.
Timber: Strong winds that form out of thunderstorms can topple huge trees pretty quickly.
We had the nastiest storm of the season in the Twin Cities early Saturday morning. When I awoke to check the windows in my apartment, I was surprised to see what was happening. My windows face the south and east, and it appeared that items were being sucked toward the east-facing windows.

The storm was intense enough that I still closed the windows. But I was struck how there seemed to be a reverse pressure sucking air out of my apartment.

Today, I had the time to check around the Internet to learn a little bit more about winds associated with thunderstorms. I’ve learned some things from the TV meteorologists about straight-line and downburst winds. They can actually be more destructive than many tornadoes. Here are some things to keep in mind as we ride out the rest of the summer storm season.

Straight-line winds can be identified by the wreckage that shows no rotational damage. That is, all of the damage is generally blown down in the same direction. The big-blow down storm in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area several summers ago is a classic example of that. Trees were all toppled the same way. Tornadoes, on the other hand, will scatter debris in all directions.

What I learned on my new search today was an effect known as “plough winds.” These are the strong downdrafts that can come out of thunderstorms, sometimes peaking out at 60 to 90 miles per hour. The air goes straight down from the thunder clouds, strikes the ground and gushes out horizontally, just like water splashes out from a tap. Their damage is often confused for tornado action as well, but the debris paths will have a star pattern to them, rather than a tornado’s twists and turns.

Getting back to my apartment windows Saturday morning, I’m sure some plough wind or straight-line wind was blowing away from those windows, creating a vacuum behind it and sucking stray papers toward the window screens. Am I right?

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.

Jul
16
2007

Brrrrrrr: Lewis Gordon Pugh gets help getting back into a boat near the North Pole after his 19-minute swim in 29-degree waters. He made the swim to bring attention to global warming and climate change. (Photo from www.investecnorthpolechallenge.com)
Brrrrrrr: Lewis Gordon Pugh gets help getting back into a boat near the North Pole after his 19-minute swim in 29-degree waters. He made the swim to bring attention to global warming and climate change. (Photo from www.investecnorthpolechallenge.com)
Don’t you hate it when you get into the shower and it’s a bit too cold? British adventurer Lewis Gordon Pugh has taken that feeling to a whole new level.

Sunday he swam for nearly 19 minutes in the Arctic Ocean over the North Pole. Water temperatures were 29 degrees (-1.8 Celsius) and have been verified as the coldest waters anyone has ever swum in.

Why did he do it? To bring more attention to the climate change crisis. After his Sunday swim, and warming up a bit, I imagine, he said: “I am obviously ecstatic to have succeeded but this swim is a triumph and a tragedy -- a triumph that I could swim in such ferocious conditions but a tragedy that it’s possible to swim at the North Pole.

“It was frightening,” he continued, as reported on his project’s website. “The pain was immediate and felt like my body was on fire. I was in excruciating pain from beginning to end and I nearly quit on a few occasions. It was without doubt the hardest swim of my life.

In setting the new cold-water swimming record, Pugh broke his own record, which he set in 32-degree water off the coast of Antarctica.

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.

Jul
12
2007

Excuse me: British scientists are looking for less gassy diet options for cows to reduce their burps. Cows belch 25 to 50 gallons of methane a day, which contributes to global warming. (flickr photo courtesy of Denmar)
Excuse me: British scientists are looking for less gassy diet options for cows to reduce their burps. Cows belch 25 to 50 gallons of methane a day, which contributes to global warming. (flickr photo courtesy of Denmar)
Don’t you just hate it when cows burp?

Scientists working on global warming and climate change hate it just as much as we do and are doing something about it. They’re working on developing new diets for cows that will cut back on their burps and the amount of methane they’re expelling into the atmosphere.

The average cow belches out 25 to 50 gallons of methane each day. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the growing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that fuel global warming.

So what’s a polite, green-friendly cow to eat these days and reduce global warming? Scientists in Great Britain are proposing simpler digestibles like legumes – such as clover and alfalfa – could reduce cows’ belching significantly. The researchers also say that more grasses could be bred that would be easier for cows to process.

There’s good news for the very impolite cows. The scientists have also determined that methane is released into the air through cow burps, not the gas emissions they make from the other end of their body. They don’t have to strike baked beans from their diet!

Jul
11
2007

Venus and Mars are alright tonight: They may not teach us much about conditions on Earth, but they provide hours of entertaining temperature conversion!  Photo of Venus (left) from NASA; photo of Mars (other guy) from the Library of Congress.
Venus and Mars are alright tonight: They may not teach us much about conditions on Earth, but they provide hours of entertaining temperature conversion! Photo of Venus (left) from NASA; photo of Mars (other guy) from the Library of Congress.

As Science Buzz's resident global warming skeptic, I've taken a lot of shots at Al Gore over the years. Today, however, I find myself in the unusual position of having to defend him against unfair attacks. Somewhat.

In an editorial last Sunday, Gore stated:

“Consider this tale of two planets. Earth and Venus are almost exactly the same size, and have almost exactly the same amount of carbon. The difference is that most of the carbon on Earth is in the ground - having been deposited there by various forms of life over the last 600 million years - and most of the carbon on Venus is in the atmosphere.

As a result, while the average temperature on Earth is a pleasant 59 degrees, the average temperature on Venus is 867 degrees. True, Venus is closer to the Sun than we are, but the fault is not in our star; Venus is three times hotter on average than Mercury, which is right next to the Sun. It's the carbon dioxide.”

This got a bunch of bloggers to thinking. George Reisman went to a NASA website and found an interesting comparison:

PLANET Venus Earth Mars
CO2 IN ATMOSPHERE 96% 0%* 95%
AVERAGE TEMPERATURE 867˚F 59˚F -81˚F

*Not quite true: Earth’s atmosphere is 0.035% CO2.

So, planets with lots of carbon in their atmosphere can be either broiling hot or icy cold.

(Another writer, Evan Kayne, complained (seventh item) the comparison isn't fair; Reisman didn’t take into account the fact that the atmosphere on Mars is only 1.3% as thick as Earth’s. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal re-did the calculations, and concluded that frigid Mars still has 34x as much CO2 per cubic foot of atmosphere as the Earth does.)

So far, Al isn't looking too good. But then, blogger David Downing thought he'd discovered another problem. According to the NASA site, Mercury has an average temperature of 452˚ Kelvin, while Venus has an average temp of 726˚ Kelvin. That’s only 1.6 times hotter, a far cry from what Gore had claimed!

Wait a minute. What’s this “Kelvin” scale and why is Downing using it? Well, all temperature scales measure energy. And on the Kelvin scale, 0 degrees means “no energy AT ALL.”

This makes it very easy to compare the energy in different systems. In Celsius, 0 degrees doesn’t mean “zero energy;” it means “the amount of energy in frozen water” -- which may seem chilly to you and me, but at a molecular scale, it’s got plenty of heat. (0 degrees Fahrenheit is apparently the amount of energy in a mix of ice, water, and ammonium chloride.) Comparing 25˚F to 50˚F is tricky, because the scale doesn't stop at 0. As any Minnesotan knows, it goes wayyyyy lower than that!

(It’s kind of like saying “Mike is five years older than me; Vic is 10 years older than me; therefore, Vic is twice as old as Mike.” That would only be true if I were 0 years old. If I were, say, 47, then Mike would be 52 and Vic would be 57, and the differences would be much less impressive.)

So, Downing assumed Gore must have been working in Fahrenheit, and believed that if Venus is 867˚F and Mercury is 289˚F, then Venus is three times hotter. Ha ha, what a silly mistake! I was all prepared to poke fun at Al for this glaring error, until I realized – Mercury isn’t 289˚F. According to NASA, it’s a toasty 354˚F.

So, where did Al get 289˚F? I looked in a bunch of sources -- no one was even close. Wikipedia listed Mercury at a mere 26˚F. (The side facing the Sun broils; the side turned away freezes; this is an average.)

But then I noticed -- 26˚F is 270˚K. And Wikipedia lists Venus at 735˚K . Using the proper Kelvin scale, that works out to 2.7 times hotter than Mercury. Not quite 3 times, but in the ballpark. And, to be fair, Wikipedia gives Mercury a range of temperatures, and “3x hotter” fits comfortably within that range.

So, it turns out Gore was closer to being right than he’s given credit for. He WAS working in the proper Kelvin scale. He was just relying on figures from Wikipedia rather than from NASA.

I don’t know if all this has taught us anything about global warming. But man, have I learned a lot about planetary atmospheres, temperature scales, and math! Thanks, Al!

UPDATE: Evan Kaye had claimed that the atmosphere on Mars is only 2% as thick as Earth's. James Taranto, using figures from the NASA site linked to above, calculated that it is actually 1.3% as thick as Earth's. We have corrected the figure.