Tag Archives: science

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

 

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.

AAAS PET scan

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

globaltemp

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science: Ruminating on “Particles”

 

The 21st Century Particle Principle

By Mark Marchand

I’m not much of a fan of car racing, but demolition derbies amuse me. The intent of these events is straightforward: Keep smashing cars into one another and see what happens. The lone survivor steers his or her car around the arena at the end, usually with parts of the body hanging off and smoke and steam billowing from both ends.

I was thinking of those derbies recently as I watched a PBS documentary about the launch of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) straddling the France-Switzerland border. Built and operated by CERN (The European Organization for Experimental Research), the 17-mile underground tunnel and associated equipment is generally accepted as one of the most complex experimental facilities ever built by man. The scientists call it a particle accelerator, or collider. But at its core the mission is simple (sort of like the demolition derbies): Smash stuff together and see what happens.

Since one of the theories behind creating this huge machine was recreating the conditions that existed at the time of the Big Bang, I was amused by stories that circulated as the LHC neared opening in 2008. Some bloggers and journalists suggested that scientists there could accidentally create a black hole, causing all of us to be swallowed up into some infinite corner of the universe. I was relieved when that didn’t happen.

The work that takes place at the LHC is a serious matter. I was delighted to watch usually staid LHC scientists on the PBS show smile broadly as they talked about their work, often using their hands to show the types of reactions that might result from their work. They were breathless and, usually, smiling and laughing. They described in complex terms what they hoped to see as a result of their experiments. Some were nervous, admitting they were not quite sure what the experiments would reveal — which is, I guess, expected when one conducts experiments at this level. If we knew the answer, we wouldn’t need the experiment.

Ever since I took a high school physics class, I’ve been fascinated with the particles that make up everything around us, and, even ourselves. All forms of matter, I learned, are made up of these fascinating, microscopic particles called atoms, which link together to form molecules, which then make up everything that’s solid, liquid, or gaseous. What piqued my curiosity was how these tiny atoms — comprised of even smaller protons and neutrons in a nucleus surrounded by orbiting electrons — could form materials so solid that I could smash a hammer against, say, a metal wall and the tool would just bounce off. Why, I questioned, wouldn’t the hammer sink into that swirling collection of atoms that were orbiting and connecting out of the range of normal eyesight?

The answer is complex, but the easiest way to describe it is that the different atoms “share” some of their electrons, forming a range of “bonds” between atoms and molecules — bonds that in some cases are so strong (like those in a diamond) literally nothing can tear them apart. Others, like the bonds between atoms and molecules in tissue paper, are not so strong.

Once I understood how that worked, I continued to study particles through college, mostly in chemistry classes. I grew to love organic chemistry, which involved all carbon-based matter — otherwise known as the foundation for living things on Earth. I was captivated by the story of how 19th-century German scientist Friedrich August Kekulé envisioned the so-called “ring” structure common to many molecular compounds formed by bonds between carbon atoms. The vision came to him, he says, during a daydream as he thought about a snake circling around and attempting to swallow its own tail. That’s heavy stuff, and it’s true.

Throughout my studies, I continued to base my understanding of physical matter on the fundamental structure of the atom, as first suggested by Danish physicist Niels Bohr. While the model he developed in the early 20th century has been tweaked over time, the essential components of an atom have remained the same: a nucleus of protons and neutrons, and electrons weaving and bobbing around the core.

It was sometime after I finished college and during my early career as a journalist that my safe, sound image of that most fundamental particle, the atom, was shattered. It seems there are more sub-atomic particles responsible for how matter forms and behaves. It was hard for me to accept, but there was an entirely new atomic underworld made up of particles known as  quarks, neutrinos, leptons, bosons, gluons, and more. Some are easy to find while others only exist for a short time or can only be found using the most extreme, complex scientific exploration.

And thus (you were hoping I’d get back here, right?) we come all the way back to our brand new LHC over in Europe. The mission of this multifarious machine is to find and study new subatomic particles, helping us better understand the matter around us and why it does what it does. And perhaps we’ll learn new ways to do innovative things with matter. World-changing discoveries ranging from new materials in construction and transportation to new medicines await.

After years of research during the 20th century, scientists found the only way to unearth these new particles was to take apart the atom. You’ve heard of “splitting the atom” as part of the process to get to atomic explosions, right? It turns out that breaking those bonds releases an enormous amount of energy, hence the resulting blasts. The work of colliders takes things a lot further than the lower-tech chain reactions that spark nuclear detonations, or are used to produce energy in nuclear plants.

The LHC works like this: Scientists put together two high-energy beams of protons and shoot them in opposite directions through the LHC tunnels, on a collision course. The dominant force that pushes these beams along comes from huge magnets that constantly accelerate the particles. Think about the force you feel when you hold opposing ends of two magnets together, and multiply that by a factor of thousands. These magnets, powered by high-voltage electricity, get so hot they have to be super-cooled to keep working and prevent melting. Some scientists suggest the low magnet temperatures rival that of the cold in outer space. And, as I noted earlier, to achieve the best collision possible, the particle beams are pushed along at nearly the speed of light.

Once the particles smash together, a set of four different and very sensitive equipment arrays try to detect the different sub-atomic particles and forces that might emerge. These sensors gather so much data it can take weeks or months to determine what just happened.

It was after one of the first real experiments at LHC in 2012 that we heard of the initially tentative and later confirmed discovery of the so-called “God particle,” also known as the Higgs boson. It’s existence was suggested a half century ago by British physicist Peter Higgs and several others. But without a machine like the LHC, they couldn’t prove it — until now. This unstable particle will eventually help us unlock more of the mysteries around why matter behaves the way it does.

There’s much more work to be done, and discoveries to be made, at LHC. It’s been shut down a few times already for re-tooling and repairs, but we’ve only scraped the surface, I suspect. Last month, scientists turned the LHC back on and began circulating the first new protons beams in over a year.

But sub-atomic particles are not the only key to better understanding our world. There’s the relatively new topics of dark matter, and dark energy — which experimental physicists now suggest make up a large percentage of the mass in the universe. The race to find them and prove it is on…but more on that in the future.