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Goodbye "Snowmageddon XIX", hello "Gandolf"

The Weather Channel has decided to begin naming winter storms the way we already name tropical storms. But while tropical storm nomenclature is an organized and official process, carried out by a branch of the United Nations, winter storms will be named apparently at the whim of The Weather Channel. The result: Not only can we move past calling every blizzard either Snowmageddon or Snowpocalypse, but we also get to hear news anchors discuss the damage caused by Winter Storm Gandolf. (Please note that this is Gandolf, not Gandalf. The former is a character in The Well at the World's End, an 1896 fantasy novel. The latter is probably tied up in intellectual property restrictions.)

Commodity market prediction takes the Internet by storm

Good news! There is not an unavoidable bacon shortage looming in our future. Bad news! What was actually being predicted was really an increase in meat prices across the board. Droughts have completely decimated this year's corn crop, and as corn is the stuff we usually feed our meat, it's going to cost more to raise a pig (or a cow, or a chicken) next year. Key takeaways: There will still be meat, it's just going to be more spendy next year, and also don't trust the British when they offer you "bacon" because they actually mean Canadian bacon, which is different (and inferior).

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

What is climate change ruining today?

Chocolate and high school football are being affected by climate change, according to two stories published on the Scientific American website yesterday. In the case of chocolate, the cocoa its made from is grown in several countries in West Africa, a region heavily affected by higher temperatures and extreme weather patterns. By 2020, there will likely be a 1.5 million ton shortage in cocoa production. As for football, the problem is the fact that, across the United States, cool weather season is kicking in later in the year than it used to. That affects football practice. Specifically, schools are increasingly concerned about the health risks of forcing high school students to get really physical, while fully suited and padded, in today's warmer Augusts and Septembers. So I think it's safe to say that climate change hates fun. It's a fun-hater.

Where extreme weather and infrastructure meet, bad things happen

I just posted the first part of a two-part feature about America's electric grid and the risk of blackouts. If this is something you're interested in, though, there's a New York Times piece from last week that you should really read.

When we lose our access to electricity, there's usually more than one thing that went wrong. But, one of the common things that does go wrong, especially in recent years, is extreme weather. The way the grid was built, and the way we manage it, was set up with predictable weather and climate norms in mind. When those things start to drastically shift—as we've seen over the last 10 years—the grid becomes vulnerable.

And electricity isn't the only infrastructure affected.

On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking,” said Tom Scullion, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, he said, unusually high heat is causing highway sections to expand beyond their design limits, press against each other and “pop up,” creating jarring and even hazardous speed bumps.

The frequency of extreme weather is up over the past few years, and people who deal with infrastructure expect that to continue. Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns and rising maximum (and minimum) temperatures.

“We’ve got the ‘storm of the century’ every year now,” said Bill Gausman, a senior vice president and a 38-year veteran at the Potomac Electric Power Company, which took eight days to recover from the June 29 “derecho” storm that raced from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard and knocked out power for 4.3 million people in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

This story, by Matthew L. Wald and John Schwartz, will give you a great overview of the risks we're facing—and the high prices we're paying—as "the norm" becomes an old-fashioned concept.

Read the rest of Wald and Schwartz's story in the New York Times

Why is 98.6 just right for your body but too hot for the weather?

Slate has a nice explainer covering heat wave health problems. The central question: If my body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, why am I uncomfortable when it's 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit outdoors?

The answer is both basic and interesting. Sure, 98.6 degrees F is the healthy temperature for a human body, but that's only because we are pretty good at transferring heat away from ourselves. Your metabolism and your muscles generate more heat than that, but you get rid of it using tricks like breathing out hot air and sweating. Basically, your body works like a heat exchanger. It's the same sort of system that keeps your refrigerator cool—take the heat from inside a closed space and dump it into the surrounding environment.

Unfortunately, this system works best when the surrounding environment is cooler than the closed space. Your body is happiest when the air temperature is around 70 degrees F. That's when it's most efficient at getting rid of your excess heat. When the weather gets to warm, it's a lot hard to make the heat exchange. With nowhere else to put the heat, your body temperature starts rising.

Because exercise causes the body to generate so much extra heat, optimal temperatures for intense physical activity are lower than those for daily life. Athletes can raise their core temperatures six degrees just by working out. Add an environment that makes heat dispersal more difficult—not to mention possible dehydration from sweat losses that sometimes exceed six liters (for marathoners) or two liters per hour (team game players)—and performance can take a nosedive.

... For example, researchers in Darwin, Australia, observing a long-distance runner taking a 30-minute jog through the humid air, noted that his body temperature increased from 98.96 degrees to 105.8 degrees. When he’d gone on a similar jaunt under cooler conditions, his temperature had risen by just two degrees. Such a spike spells trouble for maintaining an optimal heart rate: The man’s soared to 200 beats per minute during the last 15 minutes of his run, where, previously, it was a more sustainable 154 beats per minute.

Read the rest of Slate's Explainer on body temperature.

Image: Suck It Heat Wave!, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from instantvantage's photostream

Sixty-one years of tornadoes, in one map

John Nelson—the data visualization designer responsible for that global map of earthquakes I posted last week—has also made a strangely beautiful map showing every tornado to hit the U.S. between 1950 and 2011.

Part of what makes this map interesting is that it shows not only the touchdown location, but also the path of the tornado as it moved. Better yet, Nelson has several other related maps that break the data down in different ways. For instance, if you look at the tornado map broken down by seasonality, you can see a really amazing pattern, where what constitutes "Tornado Alley" appears to move northward over the course of the year. In December, January, and February, the bulk of tornadoes have been centered on south and south-central states like Mississippi, Texas and Kentucky. In peak tornado season—March, April, and May—the southern states are still affected, but the reach of the tornadoes has extended north and west. By June, July, and August, most of the tornado activity is happening in states like Michigan and Minnesota.

Another interesting thing I spotted on these maps: There's a hole in tornado activity centered on West Virginia. All around the state, there's a history of tornadoes. In the Mountain State, though, the number of tornadoes drops off precipitously. I'm really curious what's causing that, or whether it's a flaw in the data.

Compare tornado habits throughout the seasons

Compare tornado numbers by F-scale

Compare tornado history before and after the historically devastating 2011 season.

Watch an animation of tornadoes by year

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!)

Just how hot is it in the US right now?

Mark Memmott at NPR's "The Two Way" blog digs in to statistics and maps from the National Climatic Data Center to illustrate exactly how fucking hot it is in hundreds of cities around the US, as a record-setting heatwave continues. I found the data a little confusing, so I 'shooped up a "For Dummies" version for you all, above. But do read the whole post from Mark here. (via Dave Pell's NextDraft)

How much of a factor is climate change in the 2012 Western US wildfires? Ask a NASA JPL scientist.

JPL Climatologist Bill Patzert, on the current wildfire outbreak in the Western United States, and the role of climate change: "What's really changed in recent years is that there are more and more people building and living at the urban/wildland interface, so the human impact is greater every time these great fires erupt (...) Looking to the future, the uncertainties of human-influenced climate change will play a stronger and stronger role, and rewrite our fiery history." More here.

Beautiful watercolor notes from the Aspen Environmental Forums

I've been live-tweeting today from the Aspen Environmental Forums. But in a session this morning, I noticed that my friend Rachel Weidinger—director for the ocean advocacy group Upwell—had a far niftier way of taking notes and communicating what she was learning. While I opened up my iPad, Rachel opened up a full set of watercolor paints.

What she produced was something more akin to illuminated manuscripts than paintings—collections of short quotes and key ideas, done up in vibrant colors and surrounded by thematic doodles. It's great stuff, and a really interesting way to process and present information.

Rachel was kind enough to let me post her notes here. This page comes from the panel we attended this morning, all about climate change and the long-term impacts those changes are likely to have on regional weather. Check out more of her illuminated notes at Flickr.

Eric Sloane's Weather Book

By means of insightful hand-drawn diagrams, Eric Sloane gives the best explanation I’ve ever seen of how weather works. Originally created to help sailors 50 years ago, it works for pilots, outdoor explorers, and anyone else dependent on a change of weather.

-- KK

Eric Sloane's Weather Book
Eric Sloane
2005, 96 pages
$10

 

Read the rest

Tides carry ball across Pacific

"A soccer ball that bobbed onto the shore of a remote Alaska island is likely the first salvageable debris from last year's Japanese tsunami that could be returned to its owner" [Reuters]

Where weather predictions come from

Weather predictions are one of those things that we see every day, but don't often think about how they're created. The video explains how the process works in the United States, where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration collects and compiles the data that's shared with hundreds to TV channels and weather websites.

Video Link

Via Scientific American

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

Incredible art made with open-source weather data

This is what the wind over the United States looked like on March 27th, 5:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time. It's beautiful. And it's even better if you go to the project page, where you can watch real-time wind currents move around the map.

The National Digital Forecast Database is a weather forecasting system that provides open access to weather data collected all over the United States. The National Weather Service has field centers all across the country, that collect information about things like wind speed/direction, precipitation, and barometric pressure. They combine this data with big-picture satellite tracking and algorithms that are based on what we know about how weather patterns work, and that's how you get the kind of daily forecast we rely on to plan our days.

In the process, the National Weather Service generates a lot of data—data that has not, traditionally, been accessible to just anybody. We saw the forecasts, but it wasn't as easy to see the measurements the forecasts were based on. The NDFD changes that. It's a really great example of publicly funded research being made available to the people who help provide the funding.

And when that happens, you get cool projects like this one, where data on wind direction and speed are used to create truly amazing art. The information on current conditions, and predictions for the future, are updated hourly. When you look at the animated version of this map, what you see is the most recent forecast playing out.

Thanks to Chris Noble for sending this in on Submitterator! It's grand!

Read a previous BoingBoing story about using wind forecasts to improve renewable energy.

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.

Local snow does not disprove global climate change

Even with all those Snowpocalypseses(?), NASA says that 2011 was still the ninth warmest year on record since 1880—and all but one of the top 10 warmest years have happened in the last 11 years. 1998 is third-hottest, although it's worth noting that the top six years are all close enough that they may as well be fundamentally tied for first.

Alaskan town has 176 inches of snow on the ground

Hey, guys, I figured out where all of Minnesota's winter snow went. It's in Cordova, Alaska.

Since Nov. 1, storms have dropped 176 inches of snow and more than 44 inches of rain on the town, about 150 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Temperatures warmed overnight, and residents awoke to standing water because of stopped-up drains. The rain also made the existing snow heavier.

The warmer temperatures - about 35 degrees midday Wednesday - brought another hazard to the Prince William Sound community of 2,200 people: avalanche danger.

There's one road leading out, and it was closed though it could be opened for emergency vehicles.

"We have the National Guard right now using the standard shovel, and they're getting pretty trashed every day - not the shovels but the Guardsmen themselves," he said.

That's from an AP story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the whole thing to learn about the intricacies of snow shovel design, and why a standard shovel just ain't enough to deal with 176 inches of snow. Better ones are being airlifted in.

The image above—taken by the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management—gives you an idea of what it's like to dig out of a snow pack like this. I will admit, as much as I realize what a disaster it would be to live in Cordova, Alaska right now, there is a part of me (the part that is approximately 5 years old) that just looks at this photo and thinks, "I will build the most AWESOME fort EVER!"

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. 

 

Forecast uncertain: Chaos theory, weather prediction, and brain cancer

A diagnosis of brain cancer is basically a death sentence. It's a terrible thing for anyone to deal with, and it's only made worse by all the uncertainty.

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9 weeks of weather in 3 minutes

There are facts that just aren't apparent from our everyday perspective. Sometimes, in order to really get a scientific concept at the gut level, you have to seek out a different way to view the world. Do that, and you'll find yourself emotionally gobsmacked by well-known concepts you'd long ago accepted intellectually.

For instance, watching this video montage of 9 weeks worth of infrared images from NASA’s GOES-East satellite, the lizard-brain part of me was struck with a sudden realization, "Oh my god. Air really is a fluid, isn't it?"

Thanks to Patrick di Justo for making this and blowing my mind just a little.

Video Link