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!

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.

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.

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.

Climate change isn't liberal or conservative: It's reality

Paul Douglas is a Minneapolis/St.Paul meteorologist. Meteorologists don't study the same things as climate scientists—remember, weather and climate are different things—but Douglas is a meteorologist who has taken the time to look at research published by climate scientists and listen to their expertise. Combined with the patterns he's seen in weather, that information has led Douglas to accept that climate change is real, and that it's something we need to be addressing.

Paul Douglas is also a conservative. In a recent guest blog post on Climate Progress, he explains why climate isn't (or, anyway, shouldn't be) a matter of political identity. We'll get back to that, but first I want to call attention to a really great analogy that Douglas uses to explain weather, climate, and the relationship between the two.

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.

Mr. Douglas, I'm going to be stealing that analogy. (Don't worry, I credit!)

A few weeks ago, I linked you to the introduction from my new book, Before the Lights Go Out, where I argue that there are reasons for people to care about energy, even if they don't believe in climate change—and that we need to use those points of overlap to start making energy changes that everyone can agree on, even if we all don't agree on why we're changing.

But there's another, related, idea, which Paul Douglas' essay gets right to the heart of. Just like there's more than one reason to care about energy, there's also more than one way to care about climate. Concern for the environment—and for the impact changes to the environment could have on us—is not a concept that can only be expressed in the terms of lefty environmentalism.

You and I can think about the environment in very different ways. We can have very different identities, and disagree on lots of cultural and political issues. All of those things can be true—and, yet, we can still come to the same, basic conclusions about climate, risk, and what must be done. Here's Douglas' perspective:

I’m a Christian, and I can’t understand how people who profess to love and follow God roll their eyes when the subject of climate change comes up. Actions have consequences. Were we really put here to plunder the Earth, no questions asked? Isn’t that the definition of greed? In the Bible, Luke 16:2 says, “Man has been appointed as a steward for the management of God’s property, and ultimately he will give account for his stewardship.” Future generations will hold us responsible for today’s decisions.

This concept—Creation Care—is something that I've summed up as, "Your heavenly father wants you clean up after yourself." It's not a message that is going to make sense to everybody. But it's an important message, nonetheless, because it has the potential to reach people who might not otherwise see a place for themselves at this table.

Too often, both liberals and conservatives approach climate change as something that is tangled up in a lot of lifestyle, political, and cultural choices it has nothing to do with. Those assumptions lead the right to feel like they can't accept the reality of climate change without rejecting every other part of their identities and belief systems. Those same assumptions lead the left to spend way too much time preaching to choir—while being confused about why people outside the congregation aren't responding to their message.

That's why essays like Douglas' are so important. We look at the world in different ways. We come by our values for different reasons. But even though we might take different paths, we can come to some of the same places. Let's respect that. And let's have those conversations. Climate change is about facts, not ideologies. It's about risks that affect everyone. We need to do a better job of discussing climate change in a way that makes this clear. And that means reaching out to people with language and perspectives that they can identify with.

Read Paul Douglas' full post on Climate Progress.

Read more about energy, climate, and what we can do to make the message of climate science more universal in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Weather, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 66770481@N02's photostream

Canada's government muzzles scientists, stonewalls press queries about health, environment and climate

The Canadian Harper government's policy of not allowing government researchers to speak without approval and without being attended by political minders is in the news again. A series of speakers at an AAAS meeting told the international science community that climate, environmental and health research that calls government policy into question is routinely suppressed. Prof Andrew Weaver of U Victoria said, "The only information [the press] are given is that which the government wants, which will then allow a supporting of a particular agenda."

The allegation of "muzzling" came up at a session of the AAAS meeting to discuss the impact of a media protocol introduced by the Conservative government shortly after it was elected in 2008.

The protocol requires that all interview requests for scientists employed by the government must first be cleared by officials. A decision as to whether to allow the interview can take several days, which can prevent government scientists commenting on breaking news stories.

Sources say that requests are often refused and when interviews are granted, government media relations officials can and do ask for written questions to be submitted in advance and elect to sit in on the interview...

The Postmedia News journalist obtained documents relating to interview requests using Canada's equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. She said the documents show interview requests move up what she describes as an "increasingly thick layer of media managers, media strategists, deputy ministers, then go up to the Privy Council Office, which decides 'yes' or 'no'".

Canadian government is 'muzzling its scientists (Thanks, DaveGroff!)

(Image: Frankenstein's Monster, gagged, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from kazvorpal's photostream)

What's causing Europe's cold snap?

One of the things that makes it difficult to understand weather, climate, and long-term climate changes is the fact that, when something noticeable happens, there's a good chance it's being caused by more than one thing. So, when you look at a weather phenomenon and ask, "Is this being caused by anthropogenic climate change?", there's several (technically correct) ways that question could be answered.

Take, for instance, the recent cold snap in Europe that's killed more than 300 people and dropped snow as far south as Libya. As Andrew Freedman explains on Climate Central, this particular bit of weather weirdness is being caused by natural variations in the air currents over the Arctic:

The Arctic Oscillation, or AO, is is a climate index that describes the characteristics of the atmospheric circulation over the Arctic, and a related index describes the circulation over the North Atlantic. Depending on whether it's in a "positive" or "negative" phase, the Arctic Oscillation can bring warmer or cooler than average wintertime conditions to the U.S. and Europe.

Right now the Arctic Oscillation is in a negative phase, which tends to favor colder than average weather in Europe and the U.S. Scientists don't fully understand what causes the Arctic Oscillation to switch from one phase to the other, which limits their ability to forecast these changes ahead of time beyond a week in advance.

But (and, ladies and gentlemen, this is a great big but) scientists have noted that the Arctic Oscillation has been behaving more strangely than usual for the last decade. In fact, Freedman points out that several record-breaking positive and negative oscillations have coincided with extreme weather events you probably took note of: December 2009's Snowpocalypse, February 2010's Snowmageddon, and April 2011's massive outbreak of tornadoes (which, thankfully, doesn't have a cutesy name associated with it).

And this is where the lines between "naturally occurring" and "anthropogenically caused" get blurred. Because this record-breaking decade of Arctic Oscillations has coincided with a record-breaking decade in loss of Arctic sea ice and there's good reason to suspect that the two might be related.

... in recent years there have been studies examining how the global warming-related loss of Arctic sea ice might affect winter weather patterns in the northern hemisphere. Some of this research shows that sea ice loss may favor winters with predominately negative phases of the Arctic Oscillation. One potential result of global warming, referred to as the "Arctic Paradox," is that sea ice loss can help warm the Arctic during the winter, while setting in motion a chain reaction of events that make winters colder than they otherwise would be in Europe and the U.S.

This actually gets even more complicated, because it also appears that AO can affect the amount of sea ice that melts in a given year, which can, in turn, affect what happens with the AO. For more information, check out:
An explainer from The National Snow and Ice Data Center
— A NASA explainer from a couple of years ago that talks about the relationships between climate change, AO, and cold weather.

Also, just so we're clear, the AO is not the same thing as the climate systems that could drive "abrupt climate change"—a possible scenario that served as the basis for the highly fictional movie "The Day After Tomorrow". You can read more on that at the Weather Underground blog.

WSJ's partisan approach to climate change vs. science

The Wall Street Journal published a letter expressing skepticism about anthropogenic climate change signed by a group of engineers, retired weathermen, and scientists from fields other than climate science.

In response, a much larger group of actual climate scientists signed onto a letter rebutting the first letter. The WSJ rejected it. Instead, the pre-eminent science journal Science, which is know for its rigor in treatments of science, published it, as "Climate change and the Integrity of Science" on January 27th, 2012.

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Two incontrovertible things: Anthropogenic Global Warming is Real, and the Wall Street Journal is Political Rag

What's up with the weather?


Yesterday evening, I stood at a bus stop in Minneapolis wearing no socks, no gloves, and no hat. The breeze was warm. The birds were singing. Clearly, something is deeply wrong here. In fact, 2012 has brought the warmest start to a January on record in the Twin Cities. We're also in the middle of a major drought, which, this time of year, means no snow on the ground.

All of that has consequences—just this morning Minnesota Public Radio was talking about the economic impact the drought has had on snowmobile-based tourism in this state. What everybody wants to know: Is this caused by climate change? Is this what it will be like next year, too?

That's really hard to say. Remember: The really solid stuff scientists can tell you about climate change comes from analysis of trends over decades—for instance, when you look at global temperature anomalies over 50 years and find that the last time the global mean monthly average was lower than the 20th century average was back in February 1985. That's because, while anthropogenic climate change exists, it's not the only thing influencing the local weather or the global climate. The climate system involves a lot of different phenomena, which act alone and together. We can see a pattern of warming that can be linked to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. But there's other stuff going on, too, which affects year-to-year fluctuations within the decades-long pattern.

In this case, says Jeff Marsters on the Weather Underground blog, the abnormally high temperatures are related to oddities in the jet stream—air currents in Earth's atmosphere. And those oddities may, or may not, be the result of anthropogenic climate change.

The cause of this warm first half of winter is the most extreme configuration of the jet stream ever recorded, as measured by the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). The Arctic Oscillation (AO), and its close cousin, the North Atlantic Oscillation, are climate patterns in the Northern Hemisphere defined by fluctuations in the difference of sea-level pressure in the North Atlantic between the Icelandic Low and the Azores High. The AO and NAO have significant impacts on winter weather in North America and Europe--the AO and NAO affect the path, intensity, and shape of the jet stream, influencing where storms track and how strong these storms become. During December 2011, the NAO index was +2.52, which was the most extreme difference in pressure between Iceland and the Azores ever observed in December (records of the NAO go back to 1865.) The AO during December 2011 had its second most extreme December value on record, behind the equally unusual December of 2006. These positive AO/NAO conditions caused the Icelandic Low to draw a strong south-westerly flow of air over eastern North America, preventing Arctic air from plunging southward over the U.S. and Europe.

The December Arctic Oscillation index has fluctuated wildly over the past six years, with the two most extreme positive and two most extreme negative values on record. Unfortunately, we don't understand why the AO varies so much from winter to winter, nor why the AO has taken on such extreme configurations during four of the past six winters. Climate models are generally too crude to make skillful predictions on how human-caused climate change may be affecting the AO, or what might happen to the AO in the future. There is research linking an increase in solar activity and sunspots with the positive phase of the AO. Solar activity has increased sharply this winter compared to the past two winters, so perhaps we have seen a strong solar influence on the winter AO the past three winters. Arctic sea ice loss has been linked to the negative (cold) phase of the AO, like we observed the previous two winters. Those winters both had near-record low amounts of sunspot activity, so sea ice loss and low sunspot activity may have combined to bring a negative AO.

Image: Crazy (awesome) Minnesota Christmas weather, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from shilad's photostream. Please note the lack of snow, the fact that there is open water on Lake Harriet, the presence of ducks, and the lack of hat and gloves on that woman. This is not normal for Minnesota in December. 


Climate denier as Borat: what if Christopher Monckton was really a long-running Sacha Baron Cohen character?

Australian comedy-news program The Hamster Wheel covers archconservative British politician Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, a Thatcherite climate denier, and former editor for The Sunday Telegraph and other right-wing papers. The Hamster Wheel decides that Monckton (who once advocated confining people with AIDS to lifetime quarantine) must actually be a long-running Sacha Baron Cohen ("Bruno," "Borat") character and makes a compelling case that this must be so.

The Hamster Wheel: Lord Monckton (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

What Fukushima can teach us about coal pollution

Earlier this week, I told you about a new study tracking radioactive fallout from the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

Read the rest