Stories tagged The Water Cycle, Weather and Climate


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.


Adios El Niño, Hello La Niña?: The Pacific has switched from warm (red) to cold (blue).
Adios El Niño, Hello La Niña?: The Pacific has switched from warm (red) to cold (blue).Courtesy NASA

How to measure ocean temperature

There are many ways to measure the temperature of an ocean. Oceans are big and temperatures at different locations vary. To get a sense of whether the ocean is warming or cooling, lots of spread out measurements need to be made.

  • Thermometers under buoys or ships Since about 1990 an extensive array of moored buoys across the equatorial Pacific Ocean has beamed temperature data from a 1 meter depth up to a satellite. Lots of ships are also recording their intake water temperatures but the depths and locations vary making this data harder to use.
  • Satellite remote sensing NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) SST satellites have been providing global SST (Sea Surface Temperature) data since 2000. Unlike buoys, the satellites can sense the surface temperature everywhere. The temp measured is of the surface only, though. The surface "skin" temp can be quite different than the temp of the water below because of things like evaporation, wind, sunshine, and humidity. Also, cloud cover prevents satellites from sensing surface temperatures.
  • Acoustic Tomography Sound, especially low frequencies, can travel long distances under water. Since the speed of sound under water varies with temperature, measuring how long sound takes to travel a certain distance will give you the average temperature of the water over that distance. Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) is using trans-basin acoustic transmissions to observe the world's oceans, and the ocean climate in particular.
  • Ocean Surface Topography By bouncing microwaves off the the ocean surface and using GPS location, satellites can precisely measure the height of any spot on the ocean surface. Reasoning that water expands and contracts as it heats and cools, then so too would the height of the sea surface. I think Ocean Surface Topography is the easiest and best technique for measuring ocean temperature.
    In a 2005 study researchers compared satellite measurements of sea surface height in the northeast Pacific Ocean from 1993-2004 to recordings of sea surface temperature in the region during the same period. The sea surface height measurements proved to be as accurate as temperature measurements as indicators of ocean conditions resulting from long-term climate cycles as well as being more consistent. PhysOrg

El Niño and La Niña effect on hurricanes

Ocean temperature information is useful in predicting hurricane season severity and forecasting individual storm severity. The image above shows that the Pacific Ocean is changing from hot to cold.

A La Niña is essentially the opposite of an El Niño. During a La Niña, trade winds in the western equatorial Pacific are stronger than normal, and the cold water that normally exists along the coast of South America extends to the central equatorial Pacific. La Niñas change global weather patterns and are associated with less moisture in the air, resulting in less rain along the coasts of North and South America. They also tend to increase the formation of tropical storms in the Atlantic.

"For the American Southwest, La Niñas usually bring a dry winter, not good news for a region that has experienced normal rain and snowpack only once in the past five winters," said Patzert. NASA


Internal BP documents were released today that seem to highlight decisions by the company to forgo safety precautions in favor of saving money and cutting time in drilling the now-leaking oil well. One of the documents, an email message from an engineer working on the project, refers to it as a "nightmare well," language that the press has really picked up on.

I'm hesitant to fixate too much on a phrase like "nightmare well," because the hyperbolic language used in informal emails isn't always super helpful if taken literally (e.g., "It smells like someone microwaved a goat in the break room. I'm gonna die. If I find out who did that, I will challenge them to a knife duel, ala Steven Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege. The first Under Siege, I mean.") But it does seem like the drilling of that well wasn't the best run operation, to say the least. Hopefully the investigation will determine the extent of BP's responsibility for the accident that caused the leak (or, possibly, the lack thereof).

The documents will very probably be brought up during Tony Hayward's (the CEO of BP) testimony to congress later this week. Should be interesting.


The Guardian: sticking it to The Company Men!
The Guardian: sticking it to The Company Men!Courtesy USAF
Rumor Has It that the Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner, is now The Bodyguard to the Waterworld we call the Gulf of Mexico, where Shadows Run Black... and so does the oil! He'll be putting The Big Chill on BP's oil spill, cleaning up that Untouchable crude oil with centrifugal machines developed by his company. He's sending a Message in a Bottle to the ocean (but not through The Postman): "I don't hate you for destroying the set of Waterworld! I don't want Revenge!"

But does the machine really work, or is it just a Field of Dreams? In his Testament to congress, Costner argued that it does, and that congress should require oil companies to all buy these machines. Will they? It may depend on a Swing Vote! Only time will tell if this modern-day marine Wyatt Earp can help create A Perfect World with his fancy Tin Cups!

I'm Not Funny, and should maybe Never Write on Buzz Again!

Dances with Wolves!


A few weeks ago, I assumed that some of our readers were bored with the same ol’ climate change arguments. I know you know what I’m talking about: the Cuddly-Animals-are-Dying and the Catastrophic-Disasters-Will-End-the-Human-Race arguments come to mind first. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t some merit to these frames, but c’mon! Can’t we get a little variety?

Stephen Polasky: This UofM professor and IonE fellow has some BIG ideas about $, the earth, and climate change.
Stephen Polasky: This UofM professor and IonE fellow has some BIG ideas about $, the earth, and climate change.Courtesy University of Minnesota

Lucky for you, University of Minnesota professor and Institute on the Environment fellow Stephen Polasky thinks creatively. In April, he gave a presentation on how adopting inclusive wealth could ultimately reduce climate change and its effects. And since virtually everybody likes money, I’m going to go out on a limb and bet you want to know more about the ca-ching!$

Here’s the skinny:

Economists say that just about everything has a monetary value, and how much something is worth plays largely into the decisions politicians make. Scientists like Polasky are increasingly saying that these traditional accounting methods do a poor job assessing value to natural resources, and these mistakes are leading us to make irrational choices. As an alternative, Polasky suggests adopting inclusive wealth theory.

This is not going to cut it.: Inclusive wealth is a really complicated theory for both scientists and economists.
This is not going to cut it.: Inclusive wealth is a really complicated theory for both scientists and economists.Courtesy happyeclaire (Flickr)

Ready for the good stuff??

Economists and scientists both agree that the environment has worth, called natural capital, but they disagree on how much. In fact, not only do economists and scientists disagree with each other, but they disagree amongst themselves! To be fair, determining something’s worth can be extremely difficult. Because there are already economic markets for some natural resources like trees (i.e. lumber) and metals (i.e. gold), it’s easier to assess their value. Most ecosystem services, however, like the flood control provided by wetlands, are more difficult to put a dollar value on.

Inclusive wealth theory says that our decisions should be made on economic assessments that include true representations of the value of natural resources (difficult as that may be).

Politicians make important decisions regarding environmental policies, including actions that affect climate change. When politicians are choosing between multiple policy options, they are conducting policy analysis. One criterion that politicians pretty much always use is a cost-benefit ratio, or cost efficiency. In order to do that, politicians must determine the value of each policy option and weight the outcome against the rest. (It might sound complicated, but you do this same process informally everyday when you make decisions regarding what to eat for breakfast and whether to walk or ride your bike to school/work.)

Timber!: Land use changes, like logging, release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, ultimately contributing to climate change.
Timber!: Land use changes, like logging, release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, ultimately contributing to climate change.Courtesy Ben Cody

Polasky and other like-minded individuals argue that under traditional accounting methods, politicians’ cost-benefit ratios are distorted – they are not accurately representing the true worth of the environment. Furthermore, as a result, we’re making some pretty big, bad decisions. According to Polasky, the solution is simple in theory, but difficult in practice: adopt inclusive wealth theory to more accurately measure environmental worth. If we increase the value of the environment in our analysis, the cost-benefit ratios will change and perhaps favor decisions that are more environmentally friendly. That is, under inclusive wealth, we might finally see how important it is to take climate change-reducing actions such as reducing our fossil fuel consumption, protecting forests from logging, and stopping eating so much meat… or not.

What do you think?

How much $$ is the environment worth to you? What about individual ecosystem services like pollination by bees or decomposition of waste by microbes?

Are politicians doing an accurate job of assessing the value of natural capital?

Post your comments below!


I enjoy working with our team to develop on-line interactive education activities. We are in the final testing of whose goal is to teach about the balance of global water, land coverage, atmosphere and cloudiness required to create a "liveable planet". If you want to play with it and give us feedback - here is the link:
The goal is to make a habitable planet by adding enough water, atmosphere and clouds to reach a global average temperature of about 15°C (59°F). You can mix and match, add or remove.

* Drag (and drop) an item from the right side to the left to add that element
* Drag (and drop) from the left are back to the right to remove that element
* HINT You must put at least 3 clouds by the planet!!

There is a timer to see how fast you can make the planet livable.


Climate science is hard

2010 (Jan - April) sets record for global warming
2010 (Jan - April) sets record for global warmingCourtesy NASA
Why can't scientists agree whether we are experiencing "global cooling" or "global warming" (Science Buzz covers both)?
I just spent a couple hours reading articles and comments about NASA's predicting that a new record global temperature will be set this year. Even though I have a degree in science education, I am overwhelmed by the complexity of the information.

  • Do temperatures taken down to 2000 meters below the surface give better results than down to 700 meters deep?
  • Are the thermometers used located too near the heated buildings?
  • How are large areas without temperature taking stations factored in?
  • One commenter questioned whether the heat contained by the ocean is measured in Joules per meter squared or joules per meter cubed (or should we use Watts per meter squared)?
  • What is the best way to measure a trend on a graph?

NASA scientists have this to say

Global warming trend: Anomaly means how much the temperature was above or below average.
Global warming trend: Anomaly means how much the temperature was above or below average.Courtesy NASA
NASA scientists just published a report on trends in global warming. Here is a link to a 34 page Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) analysis of global surface temperature change Here is their conclusion and a graph from page 28.

Climate trends can be seen clearly if we take the 60-month (5-year) and 132-month (11-year) running means, as shown in Figure 21 for data through January 2010. The 5-year mean is sufficient to minimize El Nino variability, while the 11-year mean also minimizes the effect of solar variability. We conclude that there has been no reduction in the global warming trend of 0.15-0.20°C/decade that began in the late 1970s. pg 28

What I think

We have just had an extended period of minimum solar activity which should have had a cooling effect on the Earth (see our post Link between sunspots and weather explained). Increased solar activity will probably add even more energy. Warmer water means increased evaporation. Warmer air holds more moisture. So expect more extreme rainfalls (my sister experienced the Nashville flood of 2010) High temperatures mean higher energies so expect more violent weather (tornadoes and hurricanes).

Want more information?

Source article: Climate Progress


Some of you may have said to yourselves over the years, “Yeah, yeah. Climate change. Hug a tree. Save the polar bears and manatees. Whatever. I’m just SO over the sexy megafauna, appeal-to-emotion approach.” Well, have I got a story for you!

In April, the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Jonathan Patz, who holds a medical doctorate and a masters degree in public health, gave a riveting lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment on how climate change affects public health. And pretty much everybody wants to live long and prosper, so I’m guessing you care about your health just as much as I do and want to know more…

Well, basically, there is increasing scientific evidence that climate change is hazardous to your health.

The end.

Just kidding!

The logic is that basic changes in the Earth’s physical environment affect public health. Take one example, as warmer climates trigger species migration, vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease will leave traditional zones to infest new land areas. That’s good news for some people, but bad news for others.

Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterall
Yuck!: Polar bears might make better poster-children for climate change afterallCourtesy Scott Bauer, USDA

Let’s break that idea down: global climate change suggests that some regions will experience warmer annual temperatures. Mosquitoes (that carry malaria) and ticks (bringers of Lyme disease) are cold-blooded, which means they don’t make their own heat and have to “steal” heat from their surroundings. Regions with warmer annual temperatures are attractive real estate for cold-blooded critters. As climate change increases annual temperatures, tick and mosquito habitat ranges will shift. Like many people, mosquitoes and ticks will move into warmer, better neighborhoods. Unfortunately for their new neighbors, the baggage of these insects causes fever, vomiting, and diarrhea (malaria) or rash, joint pain, and numbness (Lyme disease). Yikes!

Other symptoms of climate change (i.e. extreme weather and rising sea levels) have the potential to increase the severity of diseases like heat stress, respiratory diseases like asthma, cholera, malnutrition, diarrhea, toxic red tides, and mental illness (due to forced migration and overcrowding).

Not to be a downer, Patz pointed out that tackling global climate change might be the greatest public health improvement opportunity of our time in terms of number of lives saved, hospital admissions avoided, and ultimately health care cost decreases (which everyone needs!).

Is there any other good news?? Uh, besides less frostbite? No, seriously: on the bright side, warmer weather should increase the amount of physical activity of the average person (not many of us like to run in the dead of winter, you know), and, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin put it, "…an increase of two or three degrees wouldn't be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” So, yeah, there is some good news, but the real question is: does it outweigh the bad stuff?


All your official oil spill info in one place

One website,, combines information from multiple official sources.
Gulf of Mexico  Deepwater Horizon Incident: Screen capture
Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon Incident: Screen captureCourtesy ARTiFactor
Social media techniques are being applied in response to the 2010 BP oil spill disaster. The site is being maintained by British Petroleum, Transocean, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Interior.

Excellent resource for learning about oil spills

Front and center is a Flickr slideshow hosted by U.S. Coast Guard Eighth District External Affairs. In the right column is a list of "latest information" links to news items and also PDFs and Word documents describing dispersants, booms and skimmers, and many "how to ..." tasks like reporting oil soaked wildlife or submitting claims for damages.

Social Media links


I wish to thank ReadWriteWeb for pointing me toward this site.

The site allows you to register for updates. It also provides numbers to call for oiled wildlife, to report oil spill related damage, to report oiled shoreline, to request volunteer information or to submit alternative response technology, services or products.


BP oil spill projection for May 3, 2010
BP oil spill projection for May 3, 2010Courtesy uscgd8
Chemicals known as dispersants are now being used against the ever increasing amount of oil leaking out of a deep water well head. Dispersants help break the larger masses of oil into smaller droplets which will mix into the water. These dispersants are being sprayed onto the surface slicks and are also being injected directly into the oil flowing out almost a mile under the surface.

Officials said that in two tests, that method appeared to be keeping crude oil from rising to the surface. They said that the procedure could be used more frequently once evaluations of its impact on the deepwater ecology were completed. New York Times

How do chemicals disperse the oil?

Dispersant chemicals contain solvents to assist it in dissolving into and throughout the oil mass and a surfactant which acts like soap. Surfactant molecules have one end that sticks to water and one end that sticks to oil. This, along with wave action, breaks masses of oil into droplets small enough that they stay suspended under water, rather than floating back to the surface.

Are these chemicals safe?

Such cleanup products can only be used by public authorities responding to an emergency if they are individually listed on the National Contingency Plan Product Schedule.

Many of the first dispersants used in the 70s and 80s did show high toxicity to marine organisms. However, today there is a wealth of laboratory data indicating that modern dispersants and oil/dispersant mixtures exhibit relatively low toxicity to marine organisms.
On occasions the benefit gained by using dispersants to protect coastal amenities, sea birds and intertidal marine life may far outweigh disadvantages such as the potential for temporary tainting of fish stocks. ITOPF

Here is a link to one product on their list (Oil Gone Easy Marine S200

Hard choices

According to National Geographic News, "Dispersants only alter the destination of the toxic compounds in the oil." Moving the oil off the surface protects the birds and animals along the shoreline but will increase the oil exposure for fish, shrimp, corals, and oysters. I hate to mention what hurricanes will do to this situation.