The Guggenheim Walk

(This is the second in a series of posts about hikes I’ve taken through New York City and elsewhere)

By Mark A. Marchand

New York City. There is, in my opinion, no other city in the world that so easily reveals an eclectic mix of history, arts, entertainment, business/finance, retail, architecture, and simply people from literally every corner of the globe. All are slowly unveiled while walking the avenues, streets, bridges, and alleys of The Big Apple.

Over the last decade, I have embarked on many New York City hikes to experience the wonders of this great metropolis. I recently blogged on my walk through history via the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. This time, I turned north after my usual Amtrak ride from Albany.

Doing the Guggenheim:

I’ve been to far more baseball and football stadiums than museums, so the word Guggenheim is an unlikely utterance to escape my lips. But escape it did, as the target for an early spring 2008, walk. I had never been there yet word of the facility, its unusual design, and its regularly updated collections of impressionist, post impressionist, and contemporary art had somehow reached me. And it was in an area of Manhattan that I hadn’t explored.

Situated along the upper east side of a Fifth-Avenue stretch called Museum Mile, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is easily one of the world’s most unusual-looking museums. Opened in 1959 and named for the famous businessman, art collector,  and philanthropist, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum soars about 100 feet above Fifth Avenue, just past the intersection with 88th Street. And because of its reverse spiraling upward design (sometimes referred to as an upside down wedding cake), it stands out starkly from the more common brick, concrete, cement, and metal structures that surround it. The building had a polarizing effect during design, construction, and after opening, but most architectural critics settled down and came to respect it for a design unduplicated elsewhere.


The Guggenheim Museum in New York City (credit: Guggenheim Museum)

Macy’s and Herald Square

It’s a sunny spring day when I emerge from the east side of Penn Station, beneath Madison Square Garden on Seventh Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets. Setting out north on Seventh, I pass a long line of appointment-bound travelers waiting at a cab stand. Pulling or carrying all manner of suitcases and other luggage, most are tapping their feet and inching forward anxiously toward the end of a double line of yellow cabs swooping in to discharge and pick up passengers. The ever-present honking from impatient drivers jars the mostly calm setting, intermittently disturbing the low hum and general din of passing traffic and literally thousands of conversations. Workers hawk newspapers and magazines from nearby newsstands. The odor of coffee and bagels drifts from small refreshment carts.

Since I must work my way east two blocks to pick up Fifth Avenue northbound, I turn right and cross Seventh onto 34th Street. At this intersection sits Macy’s of Herald Square — the granddaddy of all Macy’s, home to Thanksgiving Day parades, famous movies, myriad items for sale, and some of the best window displays in the world. As I walk east on 34th, pedestrian traffic is heavy on a wide sidewalk, framed on the left by the Macy’s display windows and large, decorative awnings. On the right are small trees in large concrete planters. Pedestrians crowd both sides of the planters, often jogging into the busy street to navigate around slower clumps of walkers.


Macy’s of Herald Square (credit: Macy’s)

At Avenue of the Americas, also known as Sixth Avenue, sits one of the busier intersections in the entire city: Herald Square. Here, Broadway angles southeast to northwest across where 34th Street meets Sixth Avenue. The roads form a sort of crooked “X,” through which motor vehicles and pedestrians battle as traffic lights try to control the flow. It is not a situation for timid pedestrians or drivers. But because it is an extension of the retail mania that begins at Macy’s, cars and walkers slow to take in the scenery and electronic signs, further clogging the crossroads.

Just before Fifth Avenue on the right is the Empire State Building. Long since surpassed in the height department after opening its doors in 1931, it still stands out as one of the city’s most famous landmarks. It’s not that impressive at street level, but I can’t resist: I crane my neck upwards, almost falling backward in the process, to glimpse where the exasperated but fictional King Kong fought off small biplanes in the 1933 movie.

Fifth Avenue

I turn left on Fifth Avenue to head north. Here is where my “real” walk for the day begins. What lies ahead are 54 blocks or about five miles until I reach the Guggenheim at 88th. Traffic is one-way on Fifth, moving south toward Washington Square, opposite to my intended direction. The traffic is spread across six lanes, with one supposedly restricted to buses. On this pre-Uber day, it looks to me like more than half the traffic is comprised of yellow taxis, weaving back and forth across the lanes like a knot of furtive serpents. The taxis are in constant battle with large trucks, vans, private cars, and, pedestrians at each intersection. As traffic lights change at each junction, pedestrians charge forward like thoroughbreds fighting out of the starting gate.

I head north along Fifth. Even though it’s past morning rush hour, all lanes of the avenue remain congested, creeping along at 5 to 10 mph. The steady drone of traffic, bus, and truck diesel engines, and a low buzz of constant conversations and cell-phone chats is disturbed from time to time by honks and sirens. I plot a course slowly along the sidewalk on the left, occasionally bumping into walkers staring at their phones while I navigate through groups of tourists stopping to gaze and take pictures.

Fifth Avenue is known mostly as the world’s preeminent shopping Mecca. Some stores even carry the avenue name in their brand. Posh, high-end clothes retailer Saks Fifth Avenue is one of the most renowned.  Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Louis Vitton, Bergdoff Goodman, and many others appear on both sides. Heading north, I see retail businesses blending in with office buildings, coffee shops, restaurants, and historic landmarks such as the famous New York Public Library, which lords over the west side of Fifth at 42nd Street. The steps leading up to the century-old, marble structure are guarded by the oft-photographed statues of resting lions. Hundreds of visitors saunter up and down the steps.

Eight blocks north, Rockefeller Center appears on my left. It’s one of the top attractions in mid-town Manhattan. The 19-building, 22-acre complex is headquarters to businesses such as Comcast, formerly GE-NBC. I stop and stare at the blend of art-deco structures and more modern office buildings and skyscrapers. The bronze statue of Atlas is a favorite of amateur photographers, and today is no exception.


Rockefeller Center (credit: Rockefeller Center)

Across the street on the east side of Fifth is the majestic St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Completed in 1879, it was once one of the most physically prominent structures in the city. Today, even with its two soaring spires, the neo-gothic house of worship is dwarfed by business and commercial buildings that have grown up around it. Even though it looks out of place, St. Patrick’s remains one of the city’s most impressive architectural achievements. As I continue north on Fifth, the sharp light from the rising sun occasionally breaks through some of the skyscrapers to frame the upper reaches of the church.

St. Patrick's front view

St. Patrick’s Cathedral (credit: St. Patrick’s)

Proceeding farther north, I begin to lose track of the numerous landmarks on each side of the avenue, so I just amble and allow the scene to unfold. Passing 58th Street, I spot the glass-walled Apple store across the street on the right. The squat box structure serves primarily as an entrance to the sprawling Apple store below street level. Shoppers pour in and out of the entrance like ants scurrying to and from an anthill under construction.

Directly across the street from Apple are the leafy courtyard and fountains that frame the front entrance of the venerable Plaza Hotel. Featured often in movies and magazines, the grand dame of New York City hotels remains one of the best — and most expensive — places to eat and sleep. And its views of this part of the city are without peer.

Central Park

Once I cross 59th Street, the character of Fifth changes in a flash. Within a few hundred feet, the skyscrapers start to disappear. On the east side of Fifth, they are replaced with mostly lower, older buildings. Many are offices but others are beautiful, brick-faced residential complexes. On the west side of Fifth, the buildings disappear altogether. They are replaced by the trees and green, open space of one of the world’s largest urban recreational areas: the 843-acre Central Park. From 59th, this unusual park stretches north for more than 50 blocks before ending at 110th Street. This green border of Fifth Avenue’s west side is interrupted only by the Metropolitan Museum of Art between 80th and 84th streets, part of a collection of nine well-known museums known as Museum Mile.


Central Park (credit: Omni Hotels)

With over 20 blocks traveled, I pause to soak in the sudden change of scenery near the southern end of Central Park. The sidewalk here is a wide promenade made up of bricks and blocks instead of cement or asphalt. The walkway is broken up only by small patches of dirt from which trees sprout. There’s ample shade from the trees, so I sit for a while on one of the benches along the three-foot-high stone wall that forms the border between Fifth and the park. Despite heavy traffic, it’s much quieter here and I nod off for a few minutes. A prolonged honk from an impatient food delivery truck startles me awake and I continue the walk.

I find myself immersed in a wide variety of pedestrians, some dressed for work and hurrying, some wanderers searching for good park views, and even some parents or nannies pushing strollers or rushing with young kids in tow, dashing toward school or other appointments. The traffic clatter and density continue to decrease. I see many large, black SUVS with what appear to be professional drivers picking up and dropping off young families. Across the street more low-rise, older-style buildings house libraries, art collections, small office groups, doctors’ offices, and upscale homes or apartments.

Approaching 77th Street, I spot my first evidence of east-west cross street traffic on Fifth. This passageway allows a steady stream of traffic to enter the relatively quiet, nurturing green scenery of Central Park and cross to the west side of the city. For the first time since mid-town Manhattan, I have to wait for the traffic lights to cross, but I welcome the break. I take a few sips from a bottle of spring water I packed but thought I wouldn’t need. It’s a lot warmer now.

Approaching 88th a few minutes later, it’s hard to miss the buzz surrounding the Metropolitan Museum of Art, otherwise known as “The Met.” This historic museum sits on the west side of Fifth, and protrudes into Central Park. I’ve never seen it in person and I stop for 15 minutes to gaze at the massive entrance, framed by four sets of tall columns. Hundreds walk up and down one the widest set of entrance stairs I’ve ever seen. The stairways rival those of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Hot dog and other food/drink vendors line the sidewalk and plaza in front of the off-white and tan structure that stretches out from the main building on both sides, the result of additions over the years. Today it’s home to some 2 million objects. They range from ancient Egyptian artifacts to some of the world’s most famous, rare paintings.


The Met (credit: NYC Arts)

Arriving at the Guggenheim

A few blocks later, I finally spot my target. The light tan spirals of The Guggenheim emerge to my right. The unique building is ensconced between two taller, office/residential buildings just north and south.

Hundreds of visitors are milling about the entrance. Many are looking at brochures as they plan their tour. I sit outside to rest for a few minutes, before entering and buying my ticket. There’s a lot to absorb and I have since forgotten most of it. What I do recall is the primary display I saw that day. A series of exhibits along the long, circular walkway (1,416 feet long) to the top of the building featured work by Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang. He has spent part of his career studying gunpowder and explosions. Many of these blasts, or the results of detonations, are depicted in paintings, drawings, sculptures and other presentations. I had no idea he was the artist featured during my visit, but I find myself fascinated as I try to decipher what it all means.


Some of Quo-Qiang’s art (credit: the artist)

In the end, as I walk back down to street level, I admit I don’t understand much of  Guo-Qiang’s art, but I achieved what I set out to: I enjoyed a great walk and exposed myself to some fresh thinking based on artwork I had never seen before. I finally exit the museum around 3 p.m. My head is swirling with images of destroyed buildings, shrapnel tracks, and victims as I start the hike back south to catch a late-afternoon train home.

With a little time to spare, I stop at a posh bar along Fifth below Central Park, and order a glass of pinot noir recommended by the pleasant bartender. It’s one of the best glasses of red wine I’ve ever had. I order a second. My period of quiet reflection on the day is shattered when I pay the tab. Each glass was $25. Well, I think to myself, I’m in Manhattan … but perhaps on future missions I’ll ask for a price first.

Penn Station is swarming with home-bound commuters when I arrive for my Amtrak north. I  fight my way through thickets of briefcase- and pocketbook-toting office workers rushing to catch commuter trains to New Jersey or Long Island. I sigh with relief when I leave the crowds behind for a quiet seat on the train.

Another great day walking New York City is in the books.  My train starts chugging slowly north. Within minutes I’m asleep, my senses dulled by the rocking train and the expensive wine.



Walking from Manhattan to Brooklyn, 1880s style

By Mark Marchand

A set of bridges sits just south of where I live in Saratoga County, north of Albany. The small suspension spans carry interstate highway traffic across the Mohawk River between Albany and Saratoga counties. The bridges are formally known as the singular Thaddeus Kascsiusko Bridge, but most locals know them simply as “The Twin Bridges,” or even “The Twins.” I’ve gone along with this for years, but I’ve always felt twins was a better moniker for two not-that-similar looking, historic bridges that link lower Manhattan with Brooklyn.

Viewed via Google Maps from high above, the celebrated Brooklyn Bridge and its lesser known — but no less fascinating — partner The Manhattan Bridge form a loose “V” where they land within a few blocks of each other in Brooklyn. Since they are so close, they are my twin bridges.

I have hurtled over both while seated comfortably in cars, windows closed and oblivious to the sights and sounds associated with the crossing. But after years of reading about the Brooklyn Bridge and its storied history — combined with my lifelong love of bridges as engineering and construction marvels — I resolved to walk at least the Brooklyn Bridge, both ways. I ended up adding the Manhattan bridge for the westbound return trek after reaching Brooklyn, almost as an afterthought … but I was glad I did.

Setting off

In the fall of 2012, I pick a beautiful, sunny Sunday and head to Manhattan via Amtrak early in the morning. Since the Manhattan entrance for the Brooklyn Bridge eastbound is near New York’s City Hall and several miles from Penn Station, I take a taxi over. I want to save my legs for walking both bridges.

Departing from the cab, I plunge into a crowd of walkers milling about taking pictures of City Hall and other landmarks in City Hall Park. The aging, red-gray towers and shiny cables of the Brooklyn Bridge rise to my left. I head there right away.


Entrance to Brooklyn Bridge, from the Manhattan side, near City Hall.

There’s lots of construction going on. Concrete Jersey barriers line the right side of the cement, upsloping entrance walkway. Farther up the ramp where the actual bridge begins, eight-foot steel barriers associated with the construction block my view of the East River on each side of the walkway. Yet I can finally see the lattice-work of steel cables rising above me and soaring to the first of the two main towers. From my vantage point where the concrete footpath turns into the wood planks of the actual bridge walkway, I can see the top of the first of the two towers with the year it was built, 1875, displayed between peaks of the two arches that soar close to the top. A large American flag sits atop the tower, flapping gently out toward the left in the light, southerly breeze.

At last I break free from the construction barriers and the full effect of walking the bridge settles in. To my right and left and below the walkway, cars and trucks stream past in both directions. About 100 feet farther below, the choppy, blue waters of the East River flow from left to right enroute to the Upper Bay, beneath the long and towering Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and, finally, into the Atlantic Ocean.

Geometry and engineering on full display

No matter how often you stare at pictures of this more-than-century-old bridge, you’re not prepared for being surrounded by a spectacular geometric feature. A spider-web-like array of steel cables that seemingly extends in all directions surrounds each side of the walkway. Some of the cables rise straight up, connecting to the thick main suspension cable that extend from ground level on each side before rising to the top of the two towers. Other cables crisscross those vertical wires at different angles and head forward to connect directly with the granite/cement/limestone towers. The net result is that pedestrians and cars/trucks are funneled through a complex labyrinth of cables that is unlike any other bridge ever built. On this morning, rays from the rising sun glint off the hundreds of cables, sparking a constant flickering as I continue my walk east, up toward the first tower nearest Manhattan.

These cables made the Brooklyn Bridge the first steel-wire suspension bridge in the United States, when it opened in 1883.


The spider-web-like array of cables supporting Brooklyn Bridge.

I am not alone on this Sunday morning. Hundreds of other walkers , most of whom seem headed from Brooklyn toward Manhattan, crowd the wooden walkway. A white line is painted down the middle. Walkers are supposed to stay on one side and bicyclists on the other. I witness many near collisions as cyclists wander from their space to pass slower riders, while lost-in-thought amblers or young children stray into the paths of bicycles. Cyclists are constantly ringing their bike bells to clear traffic.

Approaching the first tower, I hear snippets of different languages from my fellow walkers. Expressions of wonder in Chinese, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, and other languages swirl around. We’re not far from Ellis Island in New York Harbor, so I’m reminded that well into the 21st century New York City retains its status as the nation’s great melting pot. On this day, I take comfort in that fact.

Almost everyone walking the bridge today is taking pictures: selfies, selfies with selfie sticks, group photos, pictures of the Manhattan skyline, tower pictures, and photos of the Statue of Liberty in the distance to our right and the Manhattan Bridge to our left. The clear blue sky is perfect for photos so I join the effort. Some of my best pictures prove to be of the receding Manhattan landscape, with a still under-construction Freedom Tower beginning to poke above its neighbors.


Looking back at Manhattan. For the most part, cyclists stayed on one side; pedestrians on the other.

After passing the first tower, with the walkway still sloping upward, I pause to look back at the nearly 300-foot supporting structure. Did those construction workers and engineers in the 1870s, I ask myself, understand their work would still be standing and serving the traveling public well into the 21st century? The nation was still healing from the end of the brutal Civil War in 1865, and inventions like the telephone were just arriving. How can this bridge be so old and still working while many of the bridges we built since the late 1800s and much more recently only survive 50 years or so before needing major repair work or replacement? That fact alone makes this bridge so impressive.

Some vendors have appeared now. They’re hawking t-shirts, cold drinks, and souvenirs. I’m amazed by the cleanliness. No graffiti. Little or no trash. And I get the feeling I could even make this walk at night and feel safe. To walk the Brooklyn Bridge is to experience a collective warmth and kinship with those out simply to walk a bridge. The roar of traffic beneath us continues, joining in with the clip-clop of hikers wearing harder shoes and the voices of hundreds enjoying the walk and sparkling weather.

After peaking near the middle of the span and starting downhill toward Brooklyn and the second supporting tower, I keep pausing to look back for breathtaking views of Manhattan. I finally give up and capture a selfie or two. Nearing the end of the over-one-mile span I’m back on a long, curving concrete walkway that guides me to Brooklyn streets. I can’t help but chuckle to myself when I spot a cute message on a Brooklyn welcome sign: “How sweet it is!” It bears silent testimony to the pride and cockiness for which many Brooklynites are known.


Entering Brooklyn.

About 90 minutes after starting the walk and at a traffic light where the bridge ramp ends, I turn left on Tillary Street and then left again on Jay Street to navigate to where the Manhattan Bridge begins. A few minutes later, I scramble up some steps to join the concrete walkway on the south side of this second bridge.

Return via the Manhattan Bridge

The visual difference between both suspension bridges is immediate and jarring. Where the Brooklyn Bridge oozes quaint beauty and a friendly, embracing feeling, the Manhattan Bridge appears at first to be harsh, metallic, and isolated from the rest of the city. From what I can see at the beginning, I am the only one on the walkway. I am so alone, in fact, I am a bit afraid. It is immediately apparent to me that fewer people walk this bridge.


Entering the walkway on the Manhattan Bridge, to return to Manhattan. Subway cars to the extreme right.

The concrete/asphalt walkway is bordered on each side by older, rusty chain-link fencing. Unlike the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s difficult to see the bridge structure and towers due to the closed-in nature of the path.  I spot the first evidence of graffiti, which becomes much worse as I near Manhattan. Walking up toward the first tower, a loud sustained rattling and whooshing noise envelopes me. Turning to my right, through the fence I see subway cars speeding by. They are so close, the breeze they create knocks my hat off and stirs up dust and trash. My cursory pre-walk research had failed to reveal that in addition to the seven lanes for cars and trucks on top, the middle level of the bridge has four subway tracks. I wonder how the bridge structure handles the constant banging and rocking from the heavy subway cars.

Approaching the first tower, I crane my neck upward. I can’t see much from my position. Vertical cables rise to meet the main, bridge-long cables that connect with the tower, and I can see the top of the almost Gothic-like tower. Not much else.


Approaching the first Manhattan Bridge tower.

Halfway across the Manhattan Bridge, I’m still alone. Looking left I discover stunning views of the Brooklyn Bridge I just crossed. I crouch to poke my camera through a gap in the fence to take some of what I feel are the best bridge pictures I’ve ever seen.


View of the Brooklyn Bridge, looking south from the Manhattan Bridge.

Still alone and nearing Manhattan, I stop to take pictures of a large collection of graffiti covering some cement columns and wall on my left. They are colorful and they appear new. Ahead of me, I spot my first fellow walker.


Some graffiti on the Manhattan Bridge, something not seen much on the Brooklyn Bridge

The 6,800-foot-long Manhattan Bridge — opened in 1909 after eight years of construction — returns me to the city’s most well-known borough on the north side of Chinatown. From the ramp leading down into Manhattan, I can see numerous softball teams enjoying Sunday-morning games on artificial turf diamonds that are squeezed into sparse real estate in dense neighborhoods. Brick apartment buildings are everywhere. I’m tired now, so I wander around Chinatown until I find a good restaurant where I can sit and eat lunch.


Chinatown in lower Manhattan.

Taking stock of my progress while eating, I find that walking both bridges involved about 7,000 steps, or approximately 3.4 miles over two hours. To me it was everything I expected and much more.

My strength returns after lunch, so I decide to skip the cab and walk the several miles back up to Penn Station, via Canal Street and right onto Broadway north through the trendy, artsy Soho neighborhood. Twenty blocks later, where Broadway crosses 14th Street, I’m tired again but stunned back into reality with the most unexpected visual treat of my walk: Union Square Park.

The six-acre commons with a multi-tiered plaza on the south side and trees to the north is teeming with people from all walks of life. Jugglers. Young and older couples. Scampering children. Street musicians. Souvenir vendors. Sixties-era hippies. Magicians. Dancers. I stumble into the middle of it all and I’m jostled from time to time. My senses are overloaded, and I’m developing a headache.  I spot a man dressed as a devil, complete with horns, carrying a cross and a sign asking everyone to repent. Atop the steps to an elevated plaza, a well-dressed man waves a baton, conducting a silent orchestra. Yet in the midst of all this commotion, some park visitors sit quietly on steps, reading books, smart phones, and newspapers.

It’s as if someone took a huge funnel and dumped a sampling of New York City into one place on this sunny afternoon. Later, on the train home, I struggle to capture in writing my impressions of the park, but mostly fail. I regret not stopping to take some pictures of Union Square.

I allow myself to be pushed along by the throng, finally reaching the north side of the park at 17th Street. I speed up again and complete another 20 blocks, arriving at Penn Station a half hour before my train leaves.

Sitting on the train and drinking a cold beer to cool down, I check my pedometer again. Walking from Chinatown to the train station took about 6,800 steps, or 3.3 miles. The total walking distance for the day was about seven miles. Yet in those seven miles I feel like I’ve seen so much more than I could have witnessed on any similar-length walk, anyplace. Not uncommon when one walks New York City.

Somewhere around Yonkers, I make a few notes and start reflecting on my day. My bridges walk ended up being my favorite New York City walk then, and it remains so today. I’m planning more, and I will be back.


‘I’m Being Followed by a Moon Shadow…’

(Headline: Lyric from “Moon Shadow,” written and sung by Cat Stevens, 1971)

By Mark Marchand

It’s Aug. 21, 2017, and much of the Western Hemisphere is glued to TVs, the sky, and computer screens. Let’s meet our players for the afternoon’s drama.

First there’s the sun, the fiery provider of heat and light to our precious planet. Our own personal star is hurtling through the cosmos at a relative speed of about 45,000 miles per hour.

The second participant is our faithful satellite, the moon. At a distance of about 240,000 miles from its mother planet, the moon moves along at a cosmically pokey speed of 2,300 miles per hour.

Finally, there’s us: the blue, brown and white jewel of a planet orbiting the sun — 93 million miles away — at a fairly good clip of 67,000 miles per hour.

Normally, the speeds and movements of all three heavenly bodies mean little to the general public. We all have a vague sense of a complex pattern of movement that leads to days, nights, seasons, and tidal shifts. This intricate ballet of orbital mechanics gets even more difficult to grasp if we start considering the velocity of the Milky Way Galaxy where this dance is taking place. Let’s not go there for now, lest we start over-taxing our brain’s synapses.

On this late-summer day and for the first time on such a coast-to coast scale in almost a century, the speeds and paths of all three — sun, Earth and moon — came together for one shining, or dimming, moment. This rare large-scale solar eclipse in our area of the world happens when the moon creeps right in front of the sun as it delivers its full dose of heat, light, and radiation to Earth. For centuries, the sudden daytime darkness of eclipses sparked  fear and misunderstanding.  When astronomers and other scientists began to predict them precisely, solar eclipses instead sparked wonder and amazement among millions who turn to the sky to, hopefully safely, glimpse a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event.

And it was everything scientists had hoped for. This eclipse lived up to the billing of an Aug. 14, 1932, New York Times story which promised that the next major solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017 — 85 years in the future — would be a golden opportunity to view an eclipse crossing the entire continent. It also helped that the weather cooperated. Here in Northeastern New York, partly sunny skies allowed most to witness the dark disk obscuring about 65 percent of the sun at peak.

Viewing it locally

I spent part of the afternoon viewing the eclipse on the roof of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s  Jonsson-Rowland Science Center, hovering near the Hirsch Observatory. With special solar viewing glasses provided by RPI, I joined hundreds staring at the sky in near 90-degree heat. At about 1:25 p.m., the show started.

Donning my special glasses, I looked upward. There, in the far right corner of the sun, I spotted a dark, semi-circular object moving slowly from right to left. As I stared, a smattering of ghostly clouds drifted across, also from right to left. They weren’t enough, though, to block our view of the sun.



In front of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Hirsch Observatory.

The reaction from the crowd of children, parents, college students, professors, and university administrators was silence for the first few seconds. Then came the first “oh my gods.” There were the expected “oohs” and ahhs.” Most of the crowd was now turned in the same direction, looking straight up and then slightly to the south where the eclipse unfolded. Parents continually warned their children to place the special glasses over their eyes first.

Perhaps the best line of the day came from a young boy, about 10 years old. His eyes were locked onto the unfolding eclipse when he suddenly realized the shadow was growing larger. He tugged on his mother’s arm, trying to get her to break off from a conversation with another parent.

“Mommy, it’s eclipsing more!” he shouted. I realized then that while I had heard the word eclipse used as a verb, I had rarely heard the present participle version. The mother relented and terminated her conversation. Following her son’s instructions, she lifted the glasses to her eyes, and looked up. She gasped when she spotted the growing shadow, and thanked her son. Smart kid.

I tracked the eclipse as it grew closer to the expected maximum coverage of about 65 percent around 2:40 p.m. We live far north of the zone of “totality” where viewers from the nationwide northwest to southeast track  would see the sun totally obscured. Total coverage by the moon allows the usually invisible corona and solar flares to be seen without aid of telescopes and other scientific means.


solar eclipse 2

The sun totally blocked by the moon on Aug. 21, or “totality.” This allows us to view the normally invisible corona – a collection of high temperature gases – around the sun. (Photo credit CNN)

I wandered around the roof to talk with some of the amateur astronomers. I marveled at the “box and pinhole” viewing devices that RPI students had constructed in an effort to show visiting children how easy it was.

In between two- to five-minute viewing sessions, I stood beneath the shadow of the Hirsch Observatory dome to hide from the sun’s powerful rays. I had forgotten a hat and sunscreen, so I felt vulnerable.


One of the eclipse photos I tried to take with the ‘selfie’ function on my iPhone. You can see the moon’s shadow creeping in from the left. Since this is a mirror image with the selfie function, the moon is actually moving right to left.

Why is a solar eclipse a big deal?

To begin with, eclipses are rare. They just don’t happen frequently, and seldom in such a manner that millions can witness it.

Online news sources, newspapers, and broadcast media outlets trumpeted the event for weeks. Much of the coverage focused on the mass migration of tourists and scientists to areas that would experience totality. Reporters and anchors talked endlessly about witnessing the scientific phenomenon.

For the people who accurately predicted the eclipse down to the second and have spent a lifetime studying the cosmos, the phenomenon  had a slightly different meaning: People stopped for a moment, no matter how briefly, to try to understand the science behind it all.

“All across the country, astronomers were in high demand as people of all ages sought help to safely view the sky and to understand the event that was unfolding before them,” RPI Astronomy Professor Heidi Newberg told me. “We are the seekers and the keepers of knowledge about the solar system, galaxy, and universe in which we live, and we are here for the public when we are needed.  It was heartwarming to see the public enthusiasm to look through telescopes and hear the exclamations of wonder at seeing the eclipse, whether through glasses, in projection, or through telescopes.”

She continued, “For me, astronomy is interesting every day.  Through small telescopes we can see craters on the Moon and sunspots on the Sun, and wonder about the processes that shape both of these features.  But for most of our visitors, it was a special event that induced them to take the effort to ponder the skies, and step through the door into my world for just a few hours.”

Prof. Newberg was spot on. Among friends, families, and acquaintances who rarely thought about the skies, the coming eclipse and related science was a common topic leading up to the afternoon of Aug. 21. I do hope that for some it fuels a lifelong interest in the branch of physics known as astronomy. Despite the fact that I studied chemistry in college, I have always considered astronomy a sort of all-encompassing science. Those who study and practice astronomy, after all, are trying to learn about where we came from, our place in the cosmos, and where we are headed. And are we alone?

Ending the day

Shortly before 3 p.m., as I noticed the moon’s shadow on the sun growing smaller, I headed downstairs to my car. I wanted to get home to allow my wife and our neighbors to view the waning eclipse through the special safety glasses. They were using home-built viewing devices made from cardboard boxes and cereal containers. These worked well, but I hoped to give them a direct glimpse before the shadow disappeared. They enjoyed it.

Later in the day, I tried to process the event and what it meant to me.  It wasn’t that difficult. Why did some people, I asked myself, who doubt the raw, empirical science of impending danger from man-made climate change so readily accept and act on alerts and explanations from scientists about the solar eclipse? The sciences associated with both are not that divergent. As I watched eclipse news reports later that night, I hoped that perhaps the day’s events would open the eyes of some to the important role of science in our 21st century world.

They don’t need special glasses for that.


Scientists Gather in Boston to Discuss Research and Battle Anti-Science Political Agenda

(cover photo above: Pluto surface detail from New Horizons space probe, 2016)

By Mark Marchand

BOSTON — In the city that helped launch the great democracy experiment known as America, scientists from around the world gathered last month to discuss and share their latest research — and to draw battle lines against the ideological, anti-science platform of the new administration in Washington.

The scientific community here and abroad faces a Republican-led Congress and White House that, among many anti-science initiatives, seeds doubt against the lifesaving success of vaccines and denies the science behind climate change. As they gathered at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they issued an urgent warning: basic science matters. Leadership of the international organization also called upon its members to advocate publicly for the importance of science in our everyday lives.

In her opening address, AAAS President Barbara Schaal left no doubt about the need to counter a movement that threatens to set back centuries of advancements pioneered by scientists from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein.

“The case for science must be made again and again so that government understands the essential, critical role science plays in our lives,” said Schaal, also dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Sadly, in the U.S. over the last 10 years, there’s a feeling of concern that the entire scientific enterprise is under threat, that our position in the world is eroding, and that we’re marginalized,” she added. “Our concern is that science is being discounted as just another policy system. We’re concerned with intensifying hostility toward science in many parts of globe. We need the entire science community to have a clear voice and deliver a message for science.”

Schaal said she is particularly concerned about lack of support for what she calls “basic science.” That’s more fundamental science conducted without specific applications or products in mind. The results of these endeavors form the foundation for eventual breakthroughs that benefit all of us — but they are misunderstood because it often takes decades for that type of research to pay off.

I had the opportunity to report on the four-day meeting for the newspaper where I began my career: The Springfield Republican, known as The Springfield Daily News when I worked there from 1981-83. In my first story, I summarized Dr. Schaal’s speech. I know most scientists resist the urge to leave the realm of evidence-based science discuss politics, so I was impressed with Schaal’s strong words — some of which even targeted the Oval Office occupant.

Reporting on the meeting

AAAS’ annual conference, the 183rd meeting for the group, featured hundreds of sessions during which scientists presented some of their latest work. I wrote about three of them for the Springfield newspaper.

The first story involved a West Virginia University professor leading an effort to develop a portable approach to positron emission tomography, also known as  PET scans. Today, PET scanners are large, immobile devices in which patients must sit or lie down. But scientists like Julie Brefczynski-Lewis see the need to study brain processes while a patient is performing an activity, like walking. This could pave the way for better understanding of the brain and possibly unlock secrets to cures for Parkinson’s disease and other maladies.


West Virginia University’s Julie Brefczynski-Lewis and a mockup of her portable PET scanner

Other scientists are working to transform basic components of smartphones, such as the microphone, into portable diagnostic devices. In the future, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients could simply blow into the speaker and obtain instant feedback about their breathing. If Professor Shwetak Patel and his colleagues at the University of Washington have their way, our smartphones could help us detect a range of illnesses or track existing ones.

Because I’ve always been  fascinated with the science of space travel, one of my favorite sessions and stories I wrote involved legendary planetary scientist Alan Stern and his work on the multi-year New Horizons space probe mission to Pluto. Stern is one of the leading space scientists of our era, and he’s articulate. No wonder Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of 2016.

That’s also why I couldn’t resist having a photo taken with him after his talk:

Mark and Stern

At the beginning of his presentation, Stern showed one of the best images of Pluto in existence before New Horizons was launched in 2006. Taken from telescopes on Earth, it was not a very sharp picture:

Stern 2 -- with only previous, blurry image of Pluto

And then New Horizons started sending back gems like this last year, as well as the cover photo above:

Pluto from New Horizons

New Horizons’ work is not done. After passing Pluto, the tiny atomic-fueled probe is continuing on to examine other objects in the outer edge of our Solar System, also known as the Kuiper Belt.

There was a lot more science presented at the AAAS meeting, and I did write about a few more. I’ll share them on my blog in the near future.

But I left there feeling the scientific community has awakened to the need to better express the value and importance of their work — in a world that has become more polarized and often dismissive of evidence-based science.









America’s Ballparks: Living Time Capsules

They Built Them; I Came

By Mark Marchand

Major league baseball stadiums are like time capsules — living time capsules that preserve the game Americans have loved since the mid 19th century.

Within stadium walls, dazzling plays come to pass, the sometimes plodding nine-inning script proceeds without time constraints, fans cheer, fans boo, beer and peanuts are consumed, one team wins, and one loses. All of this and more occurs without any thought to the world outside. Time capsules, after all, maintain things as they are for future generations to see.  And with some exceptions, spectators today witness the same pitches, the same hits, and the same fielding plays that took place since baseball’s birth two centuries ago.

Out there, meanwhile, wars continue, traffic creeps by, people live and die, jets soar overhead, money is made and lost, and the struggle of life carries on.

The fan who nestles into his or her ballpark seat for about three hours expects to be transported into the more magical, timeless world that author W.P. Kinsella painted for us. Kinsella, who passed away late last year, wrote the book Shoeless Joe, upon which the popular movie Field of Dreams was based. He had a knack for capturing the essence of this simple game, the arenas in which it’s played,  and the game’s  relevance to our lives. His tale of creating a lush, green ball field out of an Iowa cornfield brings to life the feelings many baseball fans harbor for their beloved diamonds and the enclosures in which the game is witnessed. There might be economic turmoil and a cruel world out there in Iowa. But cross the foul line, in Kinsella’s case, and you’re protected as a warm sense of the contest and sentinel-like lights surround you. Perhaps, as he writes, memories of old games and long-lost relatives will arise, and maybe even the ghost of a famous player will wander in from the outfield.

Image result for iowa cornfield baseball fieldThe Iowa cornfield/baseball field from “Field of Dreams

These ballparks come in all shapes and sizes. We watch our games in venues ranging from the cramped wooden or plastic seats in Fenway Park in Boston, to cushy, spacious seats in newer stadiums like PNC in Pittsburgh. Thankfully, many of the newer parks have been built as part of professional baseball’s “retro” phase, during which the design of many new parks harkens back to the shapes and feel of mid-20th century venues.

Almost without exception, major league ballparks remain in the downtown areas of cities. The 1970s-80s trend to move some sports venues out of congested cityscapes to the wide-open suburbs is just wrong. If you’re the Cubs, you play in the city of Chicago. Don’t use the city in your team’s name and abandon it for shopping mall-laden suburban America.

Since seeing my first major league contest in 1968 at Fenway, I have maintained a steady love of the game. I have expanded my fandom to include studying and, eventually, visiting as many ballparks as I can. Armed with a private pilot’s license and a career that had me traveling to cities around the nation (if my former boss is reading this, hey you didn’t expect me to just sit in my hotel at night?) I have so far visited 18 of 30 ballparks. Of those 18, only 16 remain active. Olympic Stadium in Montreal is no longer used by the Expos. They’re now in Washington, D.C. and are known as The Nationals. The Seattle Kingdome was imploded in 2000 to make room for a new football stadium. The Mariners of baseball moved to new Safeco Field up the road.

Here are some observations and reflections on the ballparks I have visited:

Fenway Park (Boston, Red Sox) — Five words come to mind when I think of Fenway, where I’ve co-owned weekend season tickets since 1988: asymmetrical, green, historic, cramped, and beautiful. If famed sports broadcaster Keith Jackson were crafting this piece with me, he’d describe Fenway with his Rose Bowl phrase: “the grand daddy of ’em all.” Fenway Park in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston is, after all, the oldest baseball park in the nation. It’s also the smallest. Fenway opened in 1912, the same week the Titanic sunk in the North Atlantic. Some might say that timing portended the decades of tragedy and failure for which the Red Sox were known. Maybe so, but the Red Sox finally won a World Series title in 2004, ending an 86-year drought.

Fenway was designed to fit into a dense residential-commercial setting, which led to its odd layout. Left field is hemmed in by a 37-foot wall (aka the “Green Monster” and THE most historic, manually operated scoreboard in baseball), while right field ends in bleacher and grandstand seats. The foul pole at the famous left field wall is only 310 feet away from home plate. The right field foul pole is 302 feet away from home, but the short wall there curves quickly to 380 feet away from home, near where the bullpens start. And for good measure, the farthest reach of center field in an uneven triangle is 420 feet away from home — a tough challenge for even the best hitters in baseball.

Looking down at Fenway from above and from north to south, the lower left resembles half of a square. The remaining boundaries are made up of four different lines with nary a right angle to be found. Five neighborhood roads form the irregular shape: Yawkey Way, Brookline Avenue, Lansdowne Street, Ipswich Street, and Van Ness Street.

Image result for aerial view of fenway park

An aerial view of Fenway Park

I could wax on, but there are other ballparks to discuss. Fenway, though, has drawn attention from many writers who have taken descriptions of this 103-year-old baseball monument on a more poetic excursion. Take John Updike in 1960 in the New Yorker magazine:

“Fenway Park is a little lyrical bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus like the inside of an old-fashioned Easter Egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934 and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between man’s Euclidean determinations and nature’s beguiling irregularities.”

I described my feelings about the place in 2012, when Fenway turned 100. This is a column I wrote for The Republican  daily newspaper in Springfield, Mass.

Image may contain: 2 people

With friend Joe Lahiff after watching the Red Sox win the World Series in Game 6 of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park

Yankee Stadium (New York City, Yankees) — Home to the dreaded Red Sox rivals, Yankee Stadium joins Fenway as perhaps the two most famous and historic stadiums in all of baseball. The venue where the Yankees play today isn’t the original that Babe Ruth built. A new one opened in 2009, a few hundred yards from the original — but the owners retained or enhanced many of the famous architectural features from the 1923 version. The best known is the facade lining the top of the inside wall.

Aside from my feelings about our rivals, I’ve always liked Yankee Stadium for three reasons. First, it sits in the heart of New York City’s densely populated borough, The Bronx. The swamps of New Jersey might have lured the Jets and Giants of football, but the Yankees are right at home at 161st Street in The Bronx. Second, it’s huge. The capacity is down a bit to 50,000 from the 56,000 that could occupy the original. But there’s a “wow” factor when you enter. The noise, the vendors hawking food and drink, the sheer quantity of people, and massive electronic scoreboards overwhelm the first-time visitor. Finally, while diminutive Fenway has only one or two decks in places, Yankee Stadium soars upward with up to four decks. I once bought a seat in the highest deck. It took my friends and me a full 20 minutes to reach the rarefied air via a series of sloping ramps.

Image result for photos of new yankee stadiumThe “new” Yankee Stadium

Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore, Orioles) — Next to Fenway and Yankee Stadium, this is my favorite baseball arena. Opened in 1992, the dazzling, green structure sparked a revival in constructing new baseball stadiums that mimic older, classic ballparks, ranging from Fenway to the long-gone Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. For most baseball fans like me, Camden Yards put an end to the boring, downright ugly circular fields that dotted the baseball landscape in the 1970s — including those in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. All three and many others have since been demolished and replaced with warmer, friendly “retro” parks that remind us of baseball’s halcyon days.

Like Fenway, Camden Yards was designed to fit into a tight downtown district. While the outfield layout is more symmetrical than Fenway’s, right field is hemmed in by tall, refurbished brick warehouses and a small section of bleacher seats. Centerfield ends in a collection of bushes and a dark background for hitters. Three decks of grandstand seats rise behind left field.

I’ve walked the entire ballpark and I defy anyone to find a seat with a bad view. The designers did their homework. The food options are great. I first visited on a Sunday in 2000 and for $100 I bought a seat in the first row behind home plate. The ticket also included lunch at the Boog Powell (a famous Oriole first baseman) restaurant behind right field, and access to the private clubs and their tall, cool drinks in the second deck above home. I usually don’t spend that much for a ticket, but it seemed like a bargain to me.

And of course Camden Yards is downtown, and easily reachable via an above-ground light-rail system that connects to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, about 10 miles away. I know many Albany-area Red Sox and Yankee fans who find a cheap ticket on Southwest Airlines to see their teams play in Baltimore. This often creates resentment among Oriole fans, who find themselves out-cheered by fans from visiting teams. But the experience is too good for us out-of-towners to resist.

Image result for photos of Camden yards 2016Camden Yards

Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Fla., Rays) — I strive for balance when I write, so I have to mention one of the most terrible fan experiences. Quite simply put, this is the worst place in America to see professional baseball. The Tampa Bay Rays play in what is easily the ugliest, architecturally speaking, venue in Major League Baseball. Watching a game there, as I have done twice, is like visiting a mausoleum. No one has ever satisfactorily answered this question for me: Why build an enclosed stadium with a non-retractable dome in Florida? A co-worker once told me it was because Tampa experiences more lightning strikes than almost anywhere else in the U.S. Perhaps, but the last time I checked, Florida called itself, “The Sunshine State.”

In addition to a tilted roof ringed with a series of catwalks inside — a feature that requires special ground rules because some fly balls and pop-ups hit those walks — the blotchy, puke-green artificial turf looks like it’s been around for 100 years and suffered from hundreds of chemical spills. Don’t adjust your TV set when you see a game being played here. The picture you see is real.

The sound is bad, the parking is tight, and the lighting can give you a headache. I pity the poor Rays. They seldom sell out the place, even on the rare occasions when they’ve made the playoffs since the field opened in 1990. Team owners have made several attempts to build a new stadium. It hasn’t happened.

The most fan-friendly feature at Tropicana is the 10,000-gallon tank in center field, where ticket-holders can pet and feed one of 30 devil-ray-like fish called cownose rays.

Image result for photos of tropicana fieldInside Tropicana Field

Rogers Centre (Toronto, Blue Jays) — Speaking of domes, don’t pass up an opportunity to see a game here. Located in downtown Toronto and originally known as The Skydome, this indoor baseball stadium has a retractable roof! I know it costs a lot more to engineer and build a roof that opens and closes, but what a concept: If the weather’s nice (Canada north of the border can be beautiful)  open the dome. Fans can bask in sunlight and warm air, while gazing at the downtown skyline that surrounds the field. This includes the majestic Space Needle-like CN Tower that pokes about 1,500 feet into the sky next door. If it rains, the Blue Jays close the roof. Rain checks are not needed here.

The stadium itself is a little ordinary, and the games are played on artificial turf. There are three decks that rise from the field on all sides, except for the outfield. There are some seats in center, but that area is ringed in by a large video scoreboard and a complex of glassed-in restaurants and hotel rooms. You can eat or just hang out in your room while watching a game. This did create some buzz a few years after the structure opened in 1989. On three occasions, young couples in one of the outfield hotel rooms forgot to close their curtains during romantic encounters.

Image result for photos of Rogers Centre 2016Rogers Centre

Wrigley Field (Chicago, Cubs) — I’ve been here twice during work trips and I have to mention it because the Cubs finally won a World Series last year. It’s the second-oldest ballpark in the country, behind Fenway.  Wrigley suffers from some of the same issues as Fenway. It can be cramped and many of the seats are uncomfortable. But it’s also located in a mostly residential neighborhood, with lots of bars.

And then there’s the layer of climbing ivy vines on the walls that enclose the outfield. Baseball fans must see this unusual ballpark feature once in their lives. There is nothing else like it. It can create some unusual plays, such as when the batted ball gets stuck in the ivy. There are special ground rules that apply in that situation. In most cases, instead of the outfielder fishing the ball out of the vegetation while the runner circles the bases, the runner is awarded a ground-rule double. What many don’t know is that behind the layer of ivy is a solid brick wall. Many an outfielder bounding after the ball has suffered a near or full concussion after bone-crushing collisions with the wall — after expecting a soft landing in the brush.

Image result for photos of wrigley field 2016Wrigley Field

The rest — In no particular order, I also visited and watched games at: Turner Field in Atlanta (which is being closed next year in a controversial move to a suburban, publicly funded new stadium), Cromerica Park in Detroit, Progressive Field in Cleveland, U.S. Cellular Field on the South Side of Chicago where the White Sox play (and soon to have a new corporate name, Guaranteed Rate Field), Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Miller Park in Milwaukee, Target Field in Minneapolis, Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, and Citi Field where the Mets play in Queens, New York. I highly recommend all of them, especially the retractable dome field in Milwaukee.

They built it; I came — with a tip of the hat to Kinsella for his great line in Shoeless Joe. At least 12 other ballparks await.

Climate Change: Avoiding the ‘Natural Variations’ Pitfall

Waterfront Property: Buy Low, Sell High?


By Mark Marchand


“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

For over a century, this comment has served as the standard retort when a friend or colleague laments hot and humid weather or complains about a massive snow storm. But when University at Albany Interim President James R. Stellar uses it to talk about work at UAlbany’s  Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Studies (DAES), he’s not grumbling. He uses it as a setup line before he talks about what he, his colleagues, and many others in academia are actually doing about the weather as the world wrestles with persistent climate change caused by humans.

Christopher Thorncroft, a UAlbany professor and DAES chair, is an ardent advocate for steering away from the political and news media musings that often cast climate change as some sort of “50-50” proposition that casually, and inaccurately, describes consensus on the topic. The actual worldwide consensus among scientists and experts, he says,  is 97 percent believe and understand that climate change is real, it’s caused by us, and we need to do something now.

The challenge, he said at a recent UAlbany conference, lies in understanding why human actions are causing the relentless warming of our planet. Next is helping the public understand what is happening — hopefully leading to greater adoption of efforts to, for example, reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses by burning fewer oil-based fuels.

What often gets in the way, Thorncroft says, are short-term variations of colder weather that embolden climate-change naysayers. The key, he says, is generating awareness and understanding of those variations, how they have been occurring for centuries, and how they will continue despite the persistent, longer-term trend of warmer temperatures.

The Nov. 10 presentations by Thorncroft and two of his UAlbany colleagues — Assistant Professor Andrea Lang and Associate Professor Paul Roundy — focused on three areas that help us understand natural events that are often misinterpreted as reversing global warming.

Natural Variations (or, one cold, snowy winter doesn’t mean climate change isn’t real)

Natural occurrences of cold weather that cause some to doubt the overall trend of warming temperatures hit home for me the day my wife and I stood on the deck of a cruise ship watching Marjerie Glacier calve into the chilly waters of Alaska’s pristine Glacier Bay. A National Park expert speaking over the ship’s PA system described how this particular glacier had been damaged by lower snowfalls and warmer temps. Instead of one long sheet of slowly moving ice, he said, it was now a series of connected, smaller glaciers. Many other glaciers, he also said, were much smaller and struggling to remain frozen. Yet a cranky,  elderly gentleman standing next to me missed the point. If Al Gore were here, he said as he gaped at the massive ice wall, he’d take a shard of ice and insert it somewhere in Al Gore’s backside, proving that once and for all the global warming brought on by climate change was not an inconvenient truth. That man is not alone in a world full of climate-change deniers.

Thorncroft builds his conclusions on evidence-based practices. The year 2015 finished with the warmest temperatures ever recorded. In fact, he told the large crowd, the top 10 warmest years since the 1880s have been the last 10 years — with the exception of 1998.

1998 and some other exceptions to the warming trend underscore the natural variability in the results we see. But they don’t deter from the alarming, overall trend of spiking temps caused by rising levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide — which has occurred in synch with the rising temps.

The chart below, from our friends at NASA, helps illustrate the point. The dark line from left to right tracks deviations from average global temps over five-year periods. The “empty” circles above and below the line are shorter, annual mean temp recordings. Thus, you can see the variations Thorncroft mentioned and the general, overall spike upward.


Thorncroft and other scientists are always asked what causes these variations. Among the answers, he says, are naturally occurring phenomena like massive volcanic eruptions. Take Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. When its cataclysmic eruption happened in 1991, tons of material were spewed into the atmosphere. Some of the ash reached as high as 22 miles and was carried over a wide area by high-level winds. The subsequent blocking of solar radiation, he explains, temporarily cooled areas of the planet, leading to short-term halts or even reductions in climbing global temps.

Here’s basically the same chart as before, but Thorncroft has added when the natural variations occurred, and why (More on El Nino in a bit.).



In  addition to natural variations and overall warming temps, what worries Thorncroft is the increasing intensity of routine weather events such as rainstorms. Since 1958, he says, scientists have recorded a 74 percent increase in “intense rainfall” activity. Many of the storms we’re witnessing now are more extreme because of higher temps. He likens the situation to baseball players who use steroids. The storm systems are stronger and last longer because they are fueled by artificial human actions.

“We have to understand that this is what’s happening — and we have to be prepared to deal with these extreme weather events,” he said near the end of his talk.

If the overall trend persists, Thorncroft concludes, the temperatures and overall climate in New York will become more like Georgia, and potentially even warmer.

El Nino (or, it’s been around since the dinosaurs)

Put simply, Professor Roundy says, El Nino is the periodic warming of equatorial and Pacific Ocean waters, which — when combined with the Earth’s rotation — disrupts the normal flow of the atmosphere. The result is the transfer of heat from ocean waters into the atmosphere, blowing more warm Pacific air into the western United States and beyond, leading to warmer temps.

The winter of 2015-16, he suggests, was  milder (featuring 70 degrees here last Christmas Eve) due to El Nino, reversing the trend we experienced during the long, cold, snowy winter of 2014-15. He and other scientists are already seeing evidence of colder Pacific water emerging, so they expect this coming winter here will be colder, but nowhere near as bad as two winters ago.

This pattern — or oscillation — of warming and cooling ocean waters (known as La Nina), Roundy says, has been around since dinosaurs roamed the globe. Yet every time we experience a harsh, cold winter, many people think global warming has stopped. No, he explains, it’s just the normal ebb and flow of ocean temps that naturally disrupt normal weather patterns.

The Polar Vortex (It’s not new; even Al Roker says so)

As the harsh winter of 2014-15 battered the Northeast, many of us began hearing about a new weather phenomenon called the polar vortex. It was, we thought, something novel that directly caused our terrible winter. We were half right.

According to Professor Lang, the term polar vortex term has been used by meteorologists for over a half century. Her conference presentation even included a 2014 tweet from NBC weatherman Al Roker, explaining that the National Weather Service has used the phrase as far back as 1959. He was responding to accusations that the news media had created the term to add pizzazz to explanations about and reporting on the winter of 2014-15.

What we really need to be concerned about, she says, is how changes in the vortex can alter our normal weather patterns. The polar vortex is a naturally occurring, large-scale circulation of air above and around the North Pole and surrounding region. It generally forms during the winter as the axis of the Earth tilts the northern hemisphere (us) away from the sun. This tilt causes generally cooler temps (otherwise known as winter) because solar radiation passes through much more of the atmosphere before it reaches the ground. Changes in the strength of the vortex can affect our climate.

Generally speaking, when polar vortex winds are strong, they help keep the colder air over the pole. Weaker polar vortex winds (or a “wavier” pattern) allow “dips” in the circulatory pattern, resulting in the spread of colder air south of the north pole. This is, she explains, what happened two winters ago when a weaker polar vortex allowed more colder air than normal to escape south. In 2015 to 2016, she adds, the warmer weather was aided by a stronger vortex that helped keep colder air up north.

One chart from Lang’s presentation shows us how a “wavier” polar vortex pattern (on the right) allows that chillier arctic air to temporarily move south.



By tracking changes in the strength of polar vortex winds, she adds, scientists and meteorologists can make better projections about winter weather up to 90 days in the future. What bears further study  are the reasons for the year-to-year variations in strong vs. weak polar vortex winds.

The point, she and her colleagues emphasize, is that El Nino/La Nina, polar vortex changes, and natural events like volcanic explosions have existed for a long time. They will always cause variations in weather — despite and during the overall, relentless elevation of temps by human-caused increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Where do we go from here?

The evidence supporting climate change is stark. According to NASA, sea levels (from melting polar ice sheets and glaciers) are close to seven inches higher today than they were last century. Global temps are higher. The level of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has crossed the critical 400 parts per million threshold for the first time ever. Oceans are warmer. The overall snow cover across the planet has decreased. There are many other factors that support the conclusions of over 97 percent of scientists.

And the answers seem simple, but they are of course politically and economically unpopular: Burn fewer fuels based on hydrocarbons, expand the use of alternate energy sources such as wind and solar, and simply use less energy. All help reduce the emission of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Another solution involves fighting mass-scale deforestation. As  we know from high school science, the process of photosynthesis has plants giving off oxygen as they soak up carbon dioxide. Fewer trees in our forests means a smaller “carbon sink” that can help remove some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

These are physical solutions that require some sacrifice. As a lifelong student of communication, I think another key factor is awareness and understanding. Great conferences (like the Nov. 10 event I attended at UAlbany, jointly sponsored by UAlbany and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government) are important means by which more of our population can gain greater understanding of what is happening. The result, hopefully, is dragging the climate change discussion further away from the political arena and more into a world where acceptance of environmental issues becomes as common and important as taking care of one’s health.

Otherwise, as my attempt at humor in my blog headline suggests, owners of waterfront property who bought their homes during times of normal sea levels may face selling them — for a lot less — as sea levels rise.



(Editor’s note: there was more in the Nov. 10 conference from the National Weather Service – NOAA – itself. More on that in a future post)