Stories tagged The Water Cycle, Weather and Climate

Jul
10
2007

So said Yogi Berra, and science is proving him right. It turns out that making accurate predictions entails more than taking current conditions and extrapolating them into the future. It’s a specialized sub-field of mathematics, with lots of rules to ensure that predictions have a reasonable chance of being accurate.

Scott Armstrong of the University of Pennsylvania and Kesten Green of Monash University, Australia, examined the forecasts recently made by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Armstrong and Green rated the methodology used by the panel against 89 principles of good forecasting derived from years of research. They found that the panel report breached 72 of those principles. They concluded that the forecasts the weather was likely to change in many negative ways were worthless.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the Earth isn’t getting warmer—that’s a well-established fact. But, most of the predictions we’ve heard of climate catastrophe due to this warming are based on bad math.

(Freeman Dyson, physics professor at Princeton, makes a similar point in this video. He argues there’s been too much focus on building computer models of climate, and not enough emphasis on collecting actual data to see if the models hold up.)

Jul
02
2007

Hurricane help: New research is finding that the churning waters from hurricanes can speed up the recovery of coral beds suffering from coral bleaching. (Photo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)
Hurricane help: New research is finding that the churning waters from hurricanes can speed up the recovery of coral beds suffering from coral bleaching. (Photo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)
After seeing the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, among other recent storms, hurricanes have been fighting a losing p.r. war. They’re just plain bad, right?

But new research is showing that the effects of hurricane weather can have a positive impact on some coral beds, particularly those that are suffering from stress caused by warming water temperatures. Ironically, warming waters is one of the factors that lead to more and bigger hurricanes.

A team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that hurricanes off of Florida and the Virgin Islands in 2005 were a benefit to “bleaching” coral beds in those areas. The bleaching problem is caused by the loss of algae in the area and a reduction in the pigments of the corals in the area when they’re stressed by warm weather.

Hurricanes Rita and Wilma in 2005 stirred up the waters of those bleached coral beds and were able to lower the water temperatures in the impacted coral beds by as much as nine degrees.

That water temperature saw a quicker recovery rate for the bleached coral beds. The researchers also point out that a direct hit by a hurricane to a coral bed still did vast damage, but areas on the edges of the storm showed improvement on the bleaching condition. Those improvements could be seen as far as 250 miles away from the hurricane’s main path.

Jul
01
2007

Thunderstorm season is already well underway, buzz people, and it’s got your number. YOUR number.
Lightning Strikes!: It's difficult to make out in this picture, but the man directly below the lightning is leaning against a flagpole and talking into a land line telephone. Don't be like him.    (Photo by Emi 7)
Lightning Strikes!: It's difficult to make out in this picture, but the man directly below the lightning is leaning against a flagpole and talking into a land line telephone. Don't be like him. (Photo by Emi 7)

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA (a source for some of the museum’s Science on a Sphere programming),”the biggest misconception people have about getting struck by lightning… is that it won't happen to them.” In fact, according to my personal calculations (based largely on repeated viewings of Back to the Future), a person is more likely to get struck by lightning than to get married. It depends on the person, though.

Living with the near-certainty of being stricken by lightning, or, as I prefer to say, being the victim of a “lightning attack,” we must all take certain precautions to protect ourselves (however futile the odds might make it seem).

NOAA presents the following tips:
1) Understand the weather patters in your area – find out when thunderstorms are most likely to occur, and don’t plan any regular flag football matches around that time.
2) If you’re outside, go inside.
3) If you’re inside, avoid windows, as well as anything that could carry acharge from a lightning strike into the house. This means plumbing, hard-wired electrical equipment, and land-line phones. Even something like a videogame console can get you zapped, if you’re playing when lighting strikes. It might be a good way to cure an addiction, though.
4) Avoid concrete walls. They often have metal reinforcement.
5) As much as you might want to, don’t go driving your soft-top convertible during a thunderstorm. It’s not safe.
6) Stay away from tall objects, even if they seem to provide shelter. Lightning hates tall things.
7) Wait a good thirty minutes after the last rumble of thunder before going back outside.

Useful suggestions, but not necessarily complete. I, JGordon, offer these tips:
1) Don’t offend lightning. Making sassy comments about lightning’s age, mother, or dropping out of community college are a sure fire way to get smoked. “Your mom’s so…” BAM! Like that. So watch your mouth.
2) Don’t hang out in lightning’s neighborhood. Avoid dark, towering clouds, K-Mart parking lots, and state park campgrounds. Especially if you’re alone.
3) Don’t ever assume that lightning is unarmed. Lightning is always packing heat. And, by heat, I mean lightning.
4) Before leaving the house each morning, throw away a dollar bill for lightning. If you live in an apartment, this isn’t strictly necessary.
5) Lightning is attracted to bright colors and high-contrast patterns. So wearing Zubas, in the rain is essentially a death wish. As if that’s anything new.
6) Lightning has the mentality of a wild animal (like a wolf or a zebra) that hates you. Accept this, and act accordingly.

If you follow all these tips to the letter, your chances of getting struck by lightning will probably fall to being about equal with your chances of accidentally buying the wrong brand of corn chips while shopping for groceries.

NOAA also reminds people that “lightning is a nervous system injury; it's not a burn injury.” It can cause lasting damage, from memory loss and depression to chronic pain and paralysis. So, if you do get attacked by lightning, it’s best to have a good lie-down after calling 9-1-1.

Protect yourself with knowledge!

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.

Jun
13
2007

Snow job?: Researchers who study Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro acknowledge that its snow and ice cap is retreating, but they think other factors are at play other than global warming (Photo by mailliw)
Snow job?: Researchers who study Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro acknowledge that its snow and ice cap is retreating, but they think other factors are at play other than global warming (Photo by mailliw)
Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa has become a poster child in the world-wide climate change debate. But a group of scientists who study the mountain have spoken up to say that it’s probably not the fault of fossil fuels and carbon emissions in the atmosphere that the snows are melting.

In fact, they’ve been very careful to say that they believe climate change is a huge problem facing our globe. They just don’t see it as a factor on the top of the mountain.

In fact, the snow and ice fields at the top of the mountain have been retreating for at least 100 years, long before fossil fuels were being burned in a substantial amounts to impact climate change. Most other glaciers around the world have started their retreats in the 1970s.

Scientists point to two factors on why Kilimanjaro’s snows are diminishing. One is a simple lack of rainfall and moisture on the mountain. There’s little replenishment of moisture for the snows that have melted.

Second is sublimation. That’s sort of the same process that causes food in your frig to get freezer burn. In sublimation, sunshine and dry air change the snow and ice at the top of the mountain so fast that it goes from a frozen state to a gas state without a fluid state. It simply evaporates into the atmosphere.

Researchers who regularly go up on Kilimanjaro say that they see very little evidence of melting on the ice cap. If the snow and ice was melting, it would be soft around the edges. On Kilimanjaro, those edges are sharp and firm.

So, it just goes to show that you continually have to apply skepticism and scientific research principles in evaluating the claims made by the hot science topic of the day.

Jun
11
2007

White roofs reflect heat, leaving the structures below cooler: Photo by gadfly pro from Flickr.com
White roofs reflect heat, leaving the structures below cooler: Photo by gadfly pro from Flickr.com

Looking for an easy way to reduce global warming, and save yourself a few bucks in the process? Paint your roof white! Most rooftops in America are black or some other dark color. These absorb heat, making the building hotter and less comfortable. People in the building run fans and air conditioners to cool off. Not only do they spend more on energy, but the power companies have to burn coal and oil to produce the electricity.

But a white roof reflects heat. The building stays cooler, and needs less electricity.

For maximum effect, you should use special heat-reflective materials. And keep the roof clean – dust and dirt darken the roof, reducing its reflective properties.

It’s been estimated that if every roof in the world were white, it would counteract all the global warming of the last 30 years! Now, the authors of this study admit that they used a very simple model – climate is much more complicated than their equations allow – but still, like changing your lightbulbs, this seems like an easy way to start having an impact now. In California, the government is giving rebates to building owners who install cool roofs.

Jun
04
2007

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin: What climate is the "best" climate?  (Photo from NASA.)
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin: What climate is the "best" climate? (Photo from NASA.)

Several months ago, political columnist George Will argued that global warming was nothing to worry about. The Earth has warmed and cooled many times before. Even if the current warming is caused by humans (a point which Will is skeptical on), so what? What makes the current climate so special that it needs to be preserved?

Nobody paid much attention at the time. But now NASA administrator Michael Griffin has made a similar pronouncement.

"I have no doubt that a trend of global warming exists.... I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change — I guess I would ask which human beings, where and when, are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate...is the best climate for all other human beings."

This statement outraged many scientists, who feel that global warming is a crisis and needs to be dealt with. Griffin later clarified his remarks, saying that NASA’s job is to collect climate information. It does not set policy. Thus, his comments should not be seen as officially endorsing any particular course of action (or inaction).

Jun
01
2007

Gray garden: A growing trend in the western U.S. is the use of gray water, water that comes from the drains of shower, bath tubs and washing machines, to go through an outdoor filtering process and then be used to water plants. Some see the idea as too big of a health
Gray garden: A growing trend in the western U.S. is the use of gray water, water that comes from the drains of shower, bath tubs and washing machines, to go through an outdoor filtering process and then be used to water plants. Some see the idea as too big of a health
As more and more people become environmentally conscious, to what extremes should we as a society let them go to help protect the environment?

That’s a pressing question these days in some western states where water is scarce and some people are trying to find creative ways to reduce their water consumption.

Meet gray water, that water that comes from the drains of bath tubs, showers and washing machines. It’s not full of hazardous waste products, but is not usable for drinking or cooking. How about flushing your toilets or water lawns with gray water?

A growing “gray water brigade” is finding creative home plumbing solutions to re-route gray water into other uses in their homes. Sometimes the modifications are quite simple to do, costing just a few hundred dollars.

But they rarely meet the building codes of the cities the gray water. Systems that have been put into use by contractors meeting local construction guidelines can cost as much as $7,000. In a recent story in the New York Times, a plumbing contractor admitted that he now encourages people interested in recycling grey water to find their own home remedies rather than fork out big bucks for a professional solution.

The same story gave a quick description of one such homemade system. A pipe running from the house deposits shower and sink water into an elevated bathtub in the yard that is filled with gravel and reeds. The roots of the plants begin filtering and absorbing contaminants. The water then flows into a lower tub, also containing a reed bed, before flowing into a still-lower tub of floating water hyacinths and small fish. The whole system cost about $100 and the final product is used to water flower beds at a California home. Chemical tests of the filtered done by the homeowner show a slightly high level of phosphorus, but nothing the plants can handle.

But other water experts share their concerns with gray water, including the risks of open pools of water becoming a mosquito breeding ground, the possible crossing of gray water lines with other plumbing that could contaminate clean water, or using gray water to irrigate plants that might be eaten raw.

Most states now have regulations about gray water usage. But proponents of gray water say those rules make the idea cost prohibitive.

So what should be done on the gray water front? Is it okay for people to play with gray water at their own risk? Are the health risks too great for this kind of experimentation? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

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
08
2007

Separation anxiety: Researchers are finding that thinning ice in the Arctic Ocean is leading to an increased number of walrus pups being separated from their mothers. The pups, which have no hunting skills, are in a jam to find food. (Photo by Adre Boffin)
Separation anxiety: Researchers are finding that thinning ice in the Arctic Ocean is leading to an increased number of walrus pups being separated from their mothers. The pups, which have no hunting skills, are in a jam to find food. (Photo by Adre Boffin)
The issue of global warming took on added significance in the eyes of many skeptics when reports came out that polar bears were drowning in the Arctic because ice sheets were getting too thin. Now, new news from the Arctic may up the ante on “animal emotion” meter.

Coast Guard icebreakers going through Arctic waters have found more “orphaned” walruses on ice floes than they ever seen before, report Science Daily. And the thinking is that walrus mothers have to abandon their pups on thinner ice as they follow the thicker ice that’s retreating north.

One recent Coast Guard unit reported seeing nine abandoned walrus pups in one trip. Years ago, it was a sight that was never seen.

Being abandoned is a almost always fatal for a walrus pup. The moms dive into the water to find food – bottom-dwelling aquatic animals – for the pups. But if the ice isn’t thick and strong enough to support the adults, they little ones go hungry. Adult walruses can dive as deep as 600 feet to find food.

“We were on a station for 24 hours, and the calves would be swimming around us crying. We couldn’t rescue them,” said Carin Ashjian, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

That same research crew found a large pool of warmer ocean water surrounding the area with all the abandoned walrus pups. That water has a temperature of 44-degrees, which is about six degrees warmer than water temperatures taken at the same spot at the same time of year two years earlier.