Stories tagged The Water Cycle, Weather and Climate


A pod of dolphins is trapped on Long Island: Photo NOAA.
A pod of dolphins is trapped on Long Island: Photo NOAA.

Some two dozen dolphins are stranded in a Long Island creek. Experts think the unusually warm weather through mid-January confused the creatures, which usually head out to deeper water in winter. This recalls some stories from last year, when bad weather stranded whales on Cape Cod, and a confused dolphin swam up the Thames River in England.


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

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

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

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

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

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


Snow chance: Using data collected over the past 30 years, here are the statistical probablities of having a white Christmas in various parts of the United States.

Will Bing Crosby be singing the blues this year?

He, along with anyone else hoping for a White Christmas, might want to check out this probability map for the chances of having a white Christmas in the United States. As you can see, Minnesota and the upper Midwest are among the prime locations to have a white Christmas.

U.S. weather records averaged over a 30-year period show that only five places with long-term weather records are practically guaranteed to have a white Christmas. They are Marquette and Sault Ste Marie in Michigan, Hibbing and International Falls in Minnesota, and Stampede Pass in Washington.

As the map shows, wide areas of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, much of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and western mountains including the Cascades of Washington and Oregon, California's Sierra, and the Rockies from Montana and Idaho south into southern Colorado have a better than 90% chance of snow on the ground at Christmas.

Of course, from year to year the weather varies. There’s never a guarantee of a having a white Christmas. How important is it to you to have a snow during the holidays?


One of the greatest threats to public health these days, especially in developing countries, is poor water quality. Everyone needs water to live, right? But if that water isn’t clean, it can lead to a ton of health problems. Some estimates figure that 6,000 people die each day due to health complications from drinking poor water.

How it works: A Rotary Club member demonstrates the simple way a LifeStraw works. Put it in your mouth and simply suck up safe drinking water. The device can help prevent up to 6,000 deaths a day due to poor quality drinking water.
How it works: A Rotary Club member demonstrates the simple way a LifeStraw works. Put it in your mouth and simply suck up safe drinking water. The device can help prevent up to 6,000 deaths a day due to poor quality drinking water.

Solving big problems usually takes big solutions. But a Swiss weaving company have developed an easy, low-cost way to get around the problems of drinking impure water. It’s developed a device called LifeStraw.

It’s a portable water purifying system. People can wear a LifeStraw around their neck and use it to safely slurp up surface water from just about any natural location. The ten-inch-long tube contains a series of fabric filters inside. Those filters can screen out nearly all micro organisms that carry water-borne diseases, including diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid and choler. The filters are fine enough to screen out particles that are up to 15 micorns small.

The makers of LifeStraw say their product can last for about a year until it needs to be replaced, processing about 700 liters of water in its life time. That averages out to about two liters a day, the size of a large soda pop bottle.

There is some minimal maintenance required with a LifeStraw. Users occasionally need to blow out their last gulp of water plus some air through the straw to clean out the filters and any silt or mud that may get drawn into the straw.

What’s really remarkable about this is the price tag for LifeStraw. Each device costs $3. But you’re not going to find them on the shelves of Wal-Mart, Target or a grocery store.

LifeStraw’s parent company, Vestergaard Frandsen sells LifeStraws in bulk quantities to charitable groups who then get them to needy areas of the world through service projects. Rotary Clubs in Great Britain are among the biggest participants in the LifeStraw distribution effort.

More information on how to get involved in distributing LifeStraws is available at the organization’s website:


MN Energy Challenge: Website here.

We need an intervention

Confronting an addict about their behavior usually doesn't have much impact. An intervention done by someone with a position of authority might. A successful intervention for those addicted to oil might resemble "treatment" and a "12-step program".

  • Overcome their denial.

    When the oil addict claims "I am not hurting anyone when I choose to waste energy," they should be made aware that depleting cheap and plentiful oil will result in scarcity and higher prices for future generations. The struggle to control oil resources will also continue to result in bloodshed.

  • Offer solutions and programs enabling recovery.

    Provide educational programs or "steps" that will eliminate abusive use of energy. Put on a sweater instead of cranking up the thermostat. Choose transportation that uses less gasoline. One means of learning "steps to recovery" is accepting the "Energy Challenge" (explained in this previous post).

  • Give incentives and recognition for appropriate behaviors.

    Governments could give rebates and tax credits for generating or using renewable energy.

  • Mandate consequences for abusive energy consumption.

    Again, governments could penalize those who refuse to clean up their act.

Change a bulb. Change the world.

To change the world, start with yourself. If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR compact fluorescent, we would save over $500,000,000 each year. That is a lot of fuel that can be left in the ground for future generations.

Join our SMM team.

When you sign up for the the Energy Challenge you can assign your energy savings to three teams. Minneapolis has pulled ahead of Saint Paul. The Science Museum of Minnesota is currently one of the top four business teams because individuals are taking steps to save energy.


Here comes the story of the hurricane: (Photo courtesy NOAA)

The hurricane season ends on Thursday, and by all accounts it was fairly mild. There were nine storms in total, only five of which were strong enough to be labeled hurricanes. This is one-third the number seen in 2005.

The extremely strong season last year led many experts to predict another bad year in 2006. Some claimed the increase would be caused by global warming. Yet Mother Nature refused to cooperate, producing only half the predicted number of storms, causing the experts to continually revise their projections downward.

This highlights the difficulty of making long-term weather predictions, and should give pause to people eager to link every climate phenomenon to a simple cause.

There is no doubt that global temperatures rose from 1980 to 1998 – yet during that time, hurricanes levels were below average. Since 1998, temperatures have stayed at or near their record-high levels. And while there has been more activity of late, only one of those years was strong enough to suggest a global warming link.

Many climate scientists argue that hurricanes run in cycles – a decade or so with lots of storms, followed by a couple decades of much lower activity. They claim recent increase in storms has less to do with climate change and more to do with this natural process.

All of which shows that more research is needed, and it’s best not to make claims – or policy decisions – based on limited data. One strong hurricane season in 2005 does not “prove” global warming, any more than one weak season in 2006 refutes it.

Science Buzz has discussed the hurricane–global warming link in the past, particularly here, here, and here.


Roger Ledding, former chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, was on WCCO radio this morning, talking about the high number of traffic accidents during today's am rush hour.

No snow, no ice, so what's the problem?

Well, it's been very dry in the Twin Cities lately. A fine spray of oil from cars routinely covers road surfaces. In very dry weather, that oil can build up. When rain begins to fall, it mixes with the oil and the road surface becomes extremely slippery. It can take a few hours for additional rain to break down and wash away the mess.

Also, this morning's wasn't a gentle, soaking rain, but a downpour. That left standing water on roadways. Drivers traveling too fast found themselves hydroplaning--sliding on a thin film of water, unable to stop or steer.

It's been unseasonably warm, for sure, and I wasn't thinking about hazardous driving conditions on my way in to work this morning. But I will be on the way home...


Join us to learn about the impacts of global warming on Minnesota's treasured Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The program--"The late, great Boundary Waters forests? Addressing the risks of rapid forest decline"--is part of the 2006 Sigurd Olson lecture series, and is free and open to the public.

Featured speakers:

  • J. Drake Hamilton, science policy advisor, Fresh Energy;
  • Paul Douglas, meteorologist, WCCO-TV; and
  • Dr. Lee Frelich, director, University of Minnesota Center for Hardwood Ecology.

Monday, November 27, 2006
Science Museum of Minnesota Discovery Hall
120 West Kellogg Boulevard, Saint Paul, Minnesota

6:30 - 7:00 Pre-program special event
Guided tour of Science-on-a-Sphere, the museum's new whole-Earth visualization system

7:00 - 9:00 Main program

Sponsored by Fresh Energy, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and the Science Museum of Minnesota. For more information, contact J. Drake Hamilton at 651-726-7562 or hamilton @


Storm chasers know that puffy cumulus clouds often cause sudden rainstorms, while storms associated with stratus clouds form more slowly. Now physicists at England’s Open University have finally found an explanation.

They propose that neighboring water droplets in a stable stratus cloud don’t crash into each other because they’re all moving at about the same speed. But fast-forming, turbulent cumulous clouds contain water droplets moving at many different speeds. They crash into each other and form larger drops. As the turbulence grows, the drops grow quickly and fall as rain within a few minutes.

Cumulous cloud: These puffy clouds are associated with sudden rainstorms. Scientists are beginning to understand why.
Cumulous cloud: These puffy clouds are associated with sudden rainstorms. Scientists are beginning to understand why.

Sun and rain
Ever noticed the bright, moving lines on the bottom of a stream, bathtub, or swimming pool? They’re called caustics, and they’re caused when ripples on the water’s surface focus sunlight. (Caustics form whenever light rays are bent by a curved surface or object and then projected onto another surface.

Caustics have a characteristic shape. Physicists can graph the phenomenon mathematically, and the graph also describes other phenomena, such as particle motion or the movement of raindrops within a cumulus cloud.

Caustics: What do the rippling patterns on the bottom of a swimming pool and cumulous clouds have in common? (Photo by R. Motti)
Caustics: What do the rippling patterns on the bottom of a swimming pool and cumulous clouds have in common? (Photo by R. Motti)

Atmosphere to outer space
The researchers say their finding won’t have any impact on weather forecasting. But particle collisions in turbulent gases must have been involved in planet formation. Perhaps the same theory can be applied?

If you're at the museum on Saturday afternoon (11/18), the MakeIt team can help you play with caustics. Does bending mylar in a different direction produce a new pattern? Does using a different color flashlight or a brighter or dimmer light affect the design?

You can also play with caustics at home.


Spaceship Earth: image
Spaceship Earth: image

Captain, we are running low on supplies.

R. Buckminster Fuller's 1969 book imagines humanity as a crew aboard a tiny spaceship traveling through infinity. We have limited water, food, and fuel. Because of our proximity to the sun, we are given a limited budget of additional fuel which allows growth of food, trees, and fish. The sun's energy input also cycles our water and air. We even have past energy from the sun stored up in the form of coal and oil.

What is biocapacity?

What happens if we use up more food and energy each year than the Earth/Sun system can regenerate? Each year Global Footprint Network calculates humanity’s Ecological Footprint (its demand on cropland, pasture, forests and fisheries) and compares it with global biocapacity (the ability of these ecosystems to generate resources and absorb wastes). They declared that today (Oct. 9th) is Global Overshoot Day, the day we passed our biocapacity limit.

"We are clearly drawing natural capital ... the point about collapse is that we don't know when some of the systems in the global atmosphere and fish will collapse but we do know that collapse is a very real possibility" says Professor Tim Jackson, head of sustainable development at Surrey University via The Independent)

We are living beyond our means. Earth's six billion inhabitants and their rising living standards are putting an intolerable strain on nature.

Overfishing, deforestation, overpopulation, etc.

The biggest problem relating to the over-consumption of resources is climate change, but its other effects include deforestation, falling agricultural yields and overfishing.
Overfishing should be easy to understand. If you harvest fish with nets faster than they can reproduce, pretty soon there are not enough fish. Remember what happened at Red Lake.

Global Footprint Network's vision

Global Footprint Network is committed to fostering a world where all people have the opportunity to live satisfying lives within the means of Earth's ecological capacity. You can read about their accomplishments and publications here.