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Climate answers sought in supercomputers

Carl Franzen, for The Verge:
There's a dark cloud hanging over the science of climate change, quite literally. Scientists today have access to supercomputers capable of running advanced simulations of Earth's climate hundreds of years into the future, accounting for millions of tiny variables. But even with all that equipment and training, they still can't quite figure out how clouds work.

Australian heatwave goes into the pink

Yesterday, Australia experienced its hottest nationwide average temperature ever — 40.33 degrees C (104.6 degrees F). Today, the country's national weather bureau added a new color to official weather forecast maps, reflecting a need to predict temperatures higher than 52 C (125.6 F). Insert your Spinal Tap jokes and terrified flailing here. Maggie

The Meteorology of Little House on the Prairie

If you read The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder's novel about narrowly avoiding starving to death during a ferocious winter on the South Dakota prairie, then you'll remember how the trains stopped running because of the snowfall. In fact, that's a big part of why Laura and her family were so hungry — their harvest had been lean and the train carried the supplies they were dependent upon.

I'd never had a real clear idea of what "the train can't get through" really meant, not being totally clear on how to adjust snow-clearing expectations from today back to the 1880s. But, as it turns out, when the train company said they couldn't get the trains through, they were not messing around. The above image, from the Minnesota Historical Society, shows you the kind of snowfall we're talking about. That picture was taken in southern Minnesota, during the same winter — 1880-1881 — that nearly killed Laura Ingalls Wilder. Please note the dude standing on top of the train. He really gives you the overwhelming sense of scale.

Last year, Barbara Mayes-Boustead, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, actually looked at the records we have for temperatures and snowfall from that winter, most of which come from military forts and major cities miles away from the small town of DeSmet, where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived. Mayes-Boustead found that the story in the book matches up reasonably accurately with actual data.

She's got a series of short audio commentaries on the winter of 1880-1881 and how it plays out in the Little House books, including a really fascinating one about the climate patterns and probably created those many months of blizzards. By looking at weather patterns from the time and at the climate systems we associate with weather like that today, Mayes-Boustead says that we can probably blame the Long Winter on a combination of a strong negative North Atlantic Oscillation — a pattern in the jet stream that sucks icy air from the Arctic down into the Midwestern US — and an El Nino year — which tends to make that same region of the county wetter than usual.

Listen to all of Barbara Mayes-Boustead's recorded presentations

Bill O'Reilly-watching climate-change-denier is moved to tears by polar melting documentary

Alexander sez, "James Balog had his movie Chasing Ice released, which is about the attempt to capture melting polar ice on film. A self-described daily Bill O'Reilly watcher, who used to tell people to get out of her house if they said global warming was anything other than 'bullshit', saw it -- and started crying. I really, really, want to see O'Reilly watching her reaction."

Synopsis « Chasing Ice (Thanks, Alexander!)

Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? The answer depends on why you're asking

There are two answers here: One for the legitimately curious, and one for people who want a disaster to be a referendum on climate change.

Read the rest

At sea for science

The Joides Resolution is a large boat—more than 450 feet long and almost 70 feet wide. That’s small compared to a lot of cruise ships, but big enough to house and feed and provide work space for 126 people. It’s a floating city, with a movie theater, helipad, hospital, cafeteria, laboratories, and a giant drilling rig. But even a big boat can start to feel small when you have nowhere else to go, and no land in sight, for two whole months.

Read the rest

Building an indoor hurricane at the University of Miami

This is how Hurricane Isaac looked on Tuesday, as it made landfall on America's Gulf Coast. If you've never been to the Gulf of Mexico, here is a key fact you should know: The water there is warm. While Pacific coastal waters might be in the 50s during August, and the central Atlantic coast is pulling temperatures in the 60s and 70s, the water in the Gulf of Mexico is well into the 80s.

And that makes a difference. We know that water temperature affects hurricane strength. But we don't understand the particulars of how or why at a detail level. To learn more about this (and other factors that make each hurricane an individual), researchers at the University of Miami are building a simulation machine. When it's complete, it will be a key tool in improving forecasts.

Peter Sollogub, Associate Principal at Cambridge Seven, says the hurricane simulator is comprised of three major components:
The first is a 1400-horsepower fan originally suited for things like ventilating mine shafts. To create its 150mph winds, it will draw energy from the campus's emergency generator system, which is typically used during power outages caused by storms.

The second part is a wave generator which pushes salt water using 12 different paddles. Those paddles, timed to move at different paces and rates, can create waves at various sizes, angles and frequency, creating anything from a calm, organized swell to sloppy chaotic seas.

The third aspect of the tank is the tank itself, which is six meters in width by 20 meters in length by two meters high. It's made of three-inch thick clear acrylic so that the conditions inside can be observed from all sides.

Read more about the hurricane simulator at Popular Science

More about how the Sahara creates the Amazon

On Monday, I posted about an incredibly fascinating study linking the minerals that fertilize the Amazon rainforest to a specific corner of the Sahara desert in the country of Chad. That lake of sand—once an actual lake the size of California—is what keeps the Amazon green and verdant.

The interesting thing is that the study is actually not anything new. It came out in 2006. I heard about it from science writer Colin Schultz. Earlier this week, Colin went on News Talk 610 CKTB out of Niagara Falls, Ontario, to talk about how he stumbled across the study and why it's important far beyond simply connecting the desert and the jungle.

The interview delves into the subject in a lot more depth. In fact, it's a great demonstration of how reading a single research paper can be interesting, but doesn't necessarily give you the full picture of what's actually going on in science. Turns out, what we know about how dust travels to the Amazon has important implications for how we think about climate change and geoengineering. Also great: Colin comparing the volume of dust traveling from the Sahara to the volume of several Honda Civics. It's short, and very much worth listening to.

You can follow Colin Schultz on Twitter. BTW: He'd like you to know that when he says "bioengineers" in the interview, he means "geoengineers".

Read More:
A 2010 Nature News article on the connection between the Sahara and the Amazon.
• Geophysical Research Letters on changes in dust transport over time.
• NASA on the way that dust affects climate.
A 2010 follow-up to the 2006 paper by the same group of researchers. Colin says that this gets more into the details of how the dust becomes an important fertilizer in the Amazon.

Image: rainforest, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tauntingpanda's photostream

CNN reporter tells Bill Nye that he doesn't understand climate change

Watch in awe as CNN's Carol Costello tells Bill Nye, a respected scientist, engineer, and science educator, that he's a "kooky guy who doesn't know what he's talking about" when he asserts the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

Bill Nye - Could climate change be wildfire cause?

Weatherman predicts the end-times

Here's a weather report for the apocalypse: "On WTVR CBS 6 in Richmond, VA, weatherman Aaron Justus provides the last weather forecast you'll ever need."

Hot Weather in Richmond this Weekend (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

Maggie at CONvergence, Twin Cities, July 6-7

Every year, CONvergence draws upwards of 5,000 people to the Minneapolis/St.Paul area for a celebrations of science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and general geekery. This year, I'll be one of them. I'm participating in several of the Con's science and skepticism-themed panels. On July 6th, you can catch me at 3:30 pm, talking about facts, controversy, and climate change; and at 8:30 pm, I'll be on a panel about the physiology of drugs and alcohol. July 7th at 12:30 pm, I'll be on a panel about climate change denialism in the classroom. At 2:00 pm that same day, I'll be talking about women in science and technology. There will also be a chance on Friday to buy a copy of Before the Lights Go Out, my book on electric infrastructure and the future of energy, and/or get your copy signed by me. Hope to see you there! Maggie

Learn about climate, energy, and "the new normal" this weekend

I'm at the Aspen Environmental Forums, an annual conference focused on many different aspects of climate science, energy policy, conservation, and other environmental issues. You can follow along on Twitter with the tag #aef2012, and I'll be tweeting regularly from the panels I watch. For instance, if you check out the tag now, you can find some great tweets from last night, covering a discussion with Stewart Brand about biotech, cloning, and the possibility of reversing extinction. Maggie

The aftermath of extreme weather

IMAGE: Derek Montgomery for MPR

That is not the result of an earthquake. Instead, this is what happens when a city receives as much as 10 inches of rain in three days. Over the last two days, flash flooding ripped apart Duluth—and other cities in Northeast Minnesota/Northwest Wisconsin. The damage in Duluth alone is expected to be in the millions. There will be street repairs, sewer line replacements, damage to private homes and businesses. The photos are devastating. Luckily, it seems that nobody died, but my heart goes out to everyone dealing with the aftermath of these storms.

At Minnesota Public Radio's Updraft blog, Paul Huttner explains how Duluth, a city built on a hillside and not near any big rivers, can end up with flooding this intense.

A cold front approached Minnesota from the High Plains on Sunday, June 17th and this front set off numerous thunderstorms through the evening. Duluth NWS received nearly an inch of rain (0.71"). The rains that fell on Sunday had inundated the soil, and created more saturated conditions than normal, which primed the Duluth area for runoff in the extreme rain event that we received

Meanwhile, 1/3 of the state of Minnesota is under drought conditions.

In pre-response to the inevitable climate change discussion, let me just remind you of meteorologist Paul Douglas' brilliant analogy:

You can’t point to any one weather extreme and say “that’s climate change”. But a warmer atmosphere loads the dice, increasing the potential for historic spikes in temperature and more frequent and bizarre weather extremes. You can’t prove that any one of Barry Bond’s 762 home runs was sparked by (alleged) steroid use. But it did increase his “base state,” raising the overall odds of hitting a home run.

See more photos from Duluth, including the soon-to-be-classic shot of an escaped zoo seal wandering the streets of downtown.

Read Paul Huttner's Updraft blog

Read an earlier post about Paul Douglas and his thoughts on climate change.

Energy and geo-engineering: Maggie on the radio

I'm going to be on the radio a couple of times today, talking about my book, Before the Lights Go Out, and the future of energy and climate. At 1:00 Eastern/Noon Central, you can listen to an hour-long interview with me on Minnesota Public Radio's Bright Ideas. You don't have to be in Minnesota to listen. It's streaming online. Then, about 2:10 Eastern/1:10 Central, I'll be on "To the Point", talking about climate, energy, and geo-engineering. Climate scientist Ken Caldiera will also be on that show and he's a great speaker. That will be online, as well. Maggie

Watch an Icelandic glacier disintegrate

"The sound of running water is not something you used to hear on an ice cap." Arctic explorer Will Steger said this last weekend, during a presentation at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Steger was showing video clips from some of his travels, and he had to speak rather loudly. Otherwise, we couldn't have heard him over the sound of running water, flowing over, under, and through an ice cap.

Steger started traveling to the Arctic 18 years ago, and he's seen the region change dramatically over time. Today, he says, it's impossible to dogsled to the North Pole without bringing some kind of floatation device. You just can't rely any longer on the ice being solid all the way up.

But one of the most disturbing things Steger showed us was how global warming disintegrates glaciers. This isn't just about the melting that happens on top of the ice. It's really about what's happening below. Glaciers aren't a solid mass. Because they move, they're riddled with cracks and crevasses. When snow and ice on top of the glacier turns into water, there are plenty of ways for that water to seep down to the bottom of the glacier. Once there, the water acts as a lubricant. It makes it easier for the front of the glacier to break off and melt away into nothing.

You can watch that process happen in real time, as meltwater helps to break apart a glacier in a time-lapse video filmed between March 27, 2007 and March 4, 2012. About halfway though, the video reverses. As the glacier "rebuilds" itself, you really get the full impact of what's happened, and what is still happening, to our Arctic ice sheets.

Video Link

See more videos of melting ice filmed by the Extreme Ice Survey.

Learn more about the global outlook for ice and snow.

Learn more about how climate change is affecting the Arctic at the Will Steger Foundation website.