Tag Archives: climate change

‘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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.).

global-temps-chart

 

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.

polar-vortex

 

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)