Blue Marble - April 2012

MAPS: March Was an Epically Weird Weather Month

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 3:25 PM EDT

 March 2012 temperatures: departure from average: NOAA National Climatic Data Center

March 2012 temperatures—departure from average: 

March was a whole new breed of insane for the record books according to NOAA's State of the Climate report for the month.

First up, the mega tornado outbreak early in the month spawned 2012's first billion-dollar disaster, as warmer-than-average conditions created a juicy environment for severe weather. There were 223 preliminary tornado reports in March, a month that averages 80 tornadoes. The majority occurred during the 2-3 March outbreak across the Ohio Valley and the Southeast. Forty people died and damages exceeded $1.5 billion.

Other March *highlights:*

  • It was the warmest March on record for the contiguous United States, a record that dates back to 1895.
  • The average temperature of 51.1 degrees F was 8.6 degrees F above the 20th century average for March and 0.5 degrees F warmer than the previous warmest March in 1910.
  • Of the more than 1,400 months that have passed since the U.S. record began, only one month, January 2006, saw a larger departure from its average temperature than March 2012.


Surface wind flow for 21 March 2012. Click for animation: NOAA.

Surface wind flow for 21 March 2012. Click for animation: NOAA. 

The March craziness was due to a persistent weather pattern that put a kink in the jet stream and kept cold away from the eastern two-thirds of the Lower 48. In the wind map above (click for amazing animation), you can see how this pattern formed a cut-off low: an atmospheric eddy, like an oxbow in a river, visible in the swirl of winds around Dallas.

Here's how Martin Hoerling of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory describes the results of that kinky pattern:

Nature's exuberant smashing of daily high temperature records in recent weeks can only be described as "Meteorological March Madness". Conditions more fitting of June than March prevailed east of the Rocky Mountains since the start of the month. The numbers are stunning. Take, for example, the nine consecutive record high temperatures in Chicago from 14-22 March, eight of which saw the mercury eclipse 80°F. For those unfamiliar with the area's climatology, high temperatures do not normally begin exceeding 80°F until after commencement of the Summer solstice. NOAA's National Climate Data Center reported that over 7000 daily record high temperatures were broken over the U.S. from 1 March thru 27 March. With beachgoers flocking to the balmy shores of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire this week, one wonders if a new normal is emerging for the preferred destination of Spring-break revelers.

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

The same pattern brought cooler-than-average conditions to the West Coast states of Washington, Oregon, and California. Nevertheless:

  • Every state in the nation experienced a record warm daily temperature during March.
  • Preliminary data show 15,272 warm temperature records broken (7,755 daytime records, 7,517 nighttime records).
  • Hundreds of locations across the country broke their all-time March records.
  • There were an unbelievable 21 instances of nighttime temperatures being as warm, or warmer, than the existing record daytime temperature for that date.

 March precipitation departures (%) from 1981-2010 average: NOAA

March precipitation departures from 1981-2010 average: NOAA

It wasn't only about temperature either. Precipitation was anomalous throughout much of the country too, as you can see in the map above... really wet or really dry compared to the 1981-2010 average, with not a whole lot in between. 

In fact the entirety of the so-called cold season that spanned October 2011 to March 2012 was whack. According to NOAA's US Climate Extremes Index (USCEI)—which tracks the highest and lowest 10 percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought, and tropical cyclones across the contiguous US—38 percent of the contiguous US racked up the second highest USCEI rank on record:

  • A record 100 percent of the Northeast and Upper Midwest regions were walloped by extremes in both warm maximum and warm minimum temperatures.  
  • Between 90 and 100 percent of the Ohio Valley and the Southeast experience record extreme temperatures between October 2011 and March 2102.

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Fracking the White House

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

The Department of Interior is expected to release new guidelines for fracking on public lands in the near future, which is making many in the industry a little nervous.

Fracking is the short-hand term for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which a blast of water, sand, and chemicals is used to tap into shale rock to extract natural gas. For years, the industry has been exempt from a number of federal laws, but the new Interior rules might impose some new restrictions, at least for fracking on public lands. The rules are expected to include disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking fluids, as well as well integrity and water management plans. Which his why some of the big players in the industry, like Exxon and Anadarko Petroleum, are working the White House on the rules, reports The Hill's E2 Wire:

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Chairman Jim Hackett and other company officials met April 3 with Cass Sunstein, who heads the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Anadarko, according to a presentation provided to OMB, fears that the rules could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of annual delays for industry projects on public lands, and warns of “onerous” reporting requirements.
The presentation also cites concerns that Interior could deny fracking from occurring at wells that have already been drilled.

Since OIRA reviews and weighs in on proposed regulations, it's often a favorite stopping place for those looking to influence the policy. Here's the full list of who attended the April 3 Anadarko meeting. Several trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute and America’s Natural Gas Alliance had their own meeting with OMB on Feb. 29, and Exxon and its subsidiary XTO Energy had a separate meeting on March 22.

Even Small Temperature Swings Bad If You're Old, Not White, or Poor

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 5:37 PM EDT

Even small changes in summer temperatures—as little as 1.8°F (1°C) higher than usual—can be deadly to people over age 65 with chronic health problems like diabetes, heart failure, and chronic lung disease, as well as to those who've survived prior heart attacks.

Other studies have focused on the short-term lethal effects of heat waves. But new research from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that small changes in temperature patterns over the long run shorten life expectancy and could result in thousands of additional deaths per year. 

Scientists now predict that climate change will not only increase overall world temperatures but will also increase summer temperature variability—particularly in mid-latitude regions like the mid-Atlantic US and in parts of France, Spain, and Italy. More volatile temperature swings could pose a major public health problem, the authors note in their paper in PNAS.

Mortality risk increased 4 percent for those with diabetes, 3.8 percent for those who'd had a previous heart attack.
  • The researchers used Medicare data from 1985 to 2006 to follow the long-term health of 3.7 million chronically ill people over age 65 living in 135 U.S. cities.
  • Years when summer temperature swings were larger had higher death rates than years with smaller swings.
  • Each 1.8°F increase in summer temperature variability increased the death rate for elderly with chronic conditions between 2.8-4 percent, depending on the condition.
  • Mortality risk was 1-2 percent higher among those living in poverty and for African Americans.
  • Mortality risk was 1-2 percent lower for people living in cities with more green space.

Based on these increases in mortality risk, the researchers estimate that greater summer temperature variability in the US could result in more than 10,000 added deaths per year.

I wrote earlier about the many ways climate change is disproportionately more deadly to women than men.

Dr. Seuss, Pesticide Shill?

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
A Dr. Seuss illustration for Flit bug spray

Dr. Seuss is best known for his allegorical children's books on themes like protecting the environment, shunning materialism, and embracing multiculturalism. But many people don't realize that before writing those children's books, Seuss also worked on commercial art for a pesticide company.

As farmer and author Will Allen noted in his 2007 book The War on Bugs, Seuss also created illustrations for pesticides in the late 1920s. The book's publisher, Chelsea Green, has made the full chapter of the book available online for a limited time.

A cartoon Seuss created for Standard's Flit ad campaign.: The War on BugsSeuss created this cartoon for Flit bug spray.Back when Theodor Seuss Geisel was a young cartoonist, Standard Oil—a major player in the petroleum industry that had branched out into making bug sprays—noticed that he'd used their Flit spray guns in several illustrations. Standard decided to hire Seuss to make funny cartoon advertisements, which appeared in national magazines and newspapers. He did work for the company between 1928 and 1943, and "is generally acknowledged to be responsible for greatly popularizing the use of household poisons," writes Allen.

Certainly no fan of chemicals, he continues:

Seuss helped America become friendly with poisons; we could laugh at ourselves while we went about poisoning things. In the process, the public grew comfortable with the myth that pesticides were absolutely necessary.

That work also helped Seuss, who was then working for a national humor magazine, pay the bills and work on the beloved books he would later become famous for writing. But anyone who's seen Seuss' books warning about the dangers of industrialism might wonder what the heck happened. Allen offers a possible explanation:

Perhaps Dr. Seuss realized his earlier mistakes and indiscretions with Standard Oil's Flit and tried to make amends with The Lorax. Geisel must have known that Flit's cartoons and his World War II cartoons for DDT had an enormous impact on the public's use of pesticides and acceptance of DDT.

A Seuss cartoon in which he used Standard Oil’s bug spray Flit as a prop. Because of this, Standard offered him a job.After Seuss used Flit as a prop in this cartoon, Standard offered him a job.

Another Seuss Flit cartoon ad.: The War on BugsAnother cartoon Seuss drew for Standard's Flit ad campaign.

Bye Bye Snow and Ice (and a Whole Lot More)

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 4:37 PM EDT

 Credit: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

We've heard a lot about the  life-threatening challenges facing penguins and polar bears as snow and ice disappear. But what about all the other life of the cryosphere—the parts of Earth where water is in its solid state for at least one month of the year (map below)? From a new paper in Bioscience:

Global average air temperature has warmed by 1 Celsius (°C) over the past century, and in response, the cryosphere—the part of the Earth’s surface most influenced by ice and snow—is changing. Specifically, alpine glaciers are retreating, the expanse of Arctic sea ice has been shrinking, the thickness and duration of winter snowpacks are diminishing, permafrost has been melting, and the ice cover on lakes and rivers has been appearing later in the year and melting out earlier. Although these changes are relatively well documented, the ecological responses and long-term consequences that they initiate are not. 

Credit: Andrew G. Fountain, et al. BioSphere. doi:10.1525/bio.2012.62.4.11, from the NSIDC Atlas of the CryosphereCredit: Andrew G. Fountain, et al. BioScience. DOI:10.1525/bio.2012.62.4.11, from the NSIDC Atlas of the Cryosphere

The paper describes impacts identified through decades-long ecological studies. The authors found two ecosystem-level responses—that is, responses rippling across various species and trophic levels—as a result of the disappearing cryosphere:

  1. Changes in foodwebs resulting from the loss of habitat and from the loss of species or the replacement of species (a.k.a. the big stuff we tend to notice and take photos of).
  2. Changes in the rates and mechanisms of biogeochemical storage and cycling of carbon and nutrients, caused by changes in physical forcings or ecological community functioning (a.k.a. the little stuff that's hard to see but that underpins the big stuff in #1).

 

A firn field of old, recrystallized snow.: Doronenko via Wikimedia Commons.A firn field of old, recrystallized snow: Doronenko via Wikimedia Commons.

Here's some specifics of what the researchers found:

  • Decreasing snowfall threatens burrowing animals and makes plant roots more susceptible to injury because snow acts as an insulator.
  • Disappearing sea ice has led to declines in the abundance of diatoms (phytoplankton), primary producers of the marine foodweb that support krill, which support seabirds and mammals.
  • Disappearing sea ice also seems unexpectedly to be decreasing the sea's uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • On land, changing snowpacks can alter plant communities.
  • Melting permafrost affects the quantity of carbon dioxide that plants and microbes take out of the atmosphere, in ways that change over time.
  • Shrinking glaciers add pollutants and increased quantities of nutrients to freshwater bodies.
  • Melting river ice pushes more detritus downstream.
  • Disappearing ice on land and resulting sea-level rise will affect social systems, economies, and geopolitics. Many of these changes are already evident in the ski industry, in infrastructure and coastal planning, and in tourism.
  • Significant effects to water supplies and therefore agriculture are predicted. 

 

 

The video from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio shows dwindling perennial Arctic sea ice from 1980 to 2012. The gray disk at the North Pole shows where no satellite data was collected. The second half of the video (wait for it) plays the same animation but without the overlay graph.

The paper:

  • Andrew G. Fountain, et al. The Disappearing Cryosphere: Impacts and Ecosystem Responses to Rapid Cryosphere Loss. BioScience. 2012. DOI: 10.1525/bio.2012.62.4.11 

Pregnant? Put Down the Pesticide

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 4:21 PM EDT

Exposure to pesticides while pregnant can cause women to give birth earlier, and to have smaller babies, according to a new study in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study found that the expectant women exposed to organophosphate insecticides were more likely to give birth a few days earlier, and their babies weighed at least a third of a pound less at birth. These are the most common type of pesticides used around the world. And as Huffington Post reporter Lynne Peeples notes that these weren't women working in agriculture or lawn care, who might be exposed to large amounts of the pesticides—they were just your average pregnant ladies:

"This is not an unusual group," said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, about the women who were studied. "These are women exposed primarily through diet and perhaps pesticides used in and around the yard," said Lanphear, a researcher on the study of organophosphate pesticide exposure published Thursday in Environmental Health Perspectives.
Nearly all pregnant women carry pesticide residues in their bodies. The new study's 306 expectant moms -- from a diverse range of economic and racial groups and from urban, suburban and rural areas in and around Cincinnati -- were no exception.

This is bad news for babies, as preterm birth is a major factor in infant mortality, and being born at lower weights is linked to long-term health concerns like delayed development or learning disabilities.

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The 8 Most Notorious Greenwashers

| Thu Apr. 5, 2012 3:52 PM EDT

Everyone seems to be promoting themselves as "green" or "natural" in some way or another these days, tapping into the zeitgeist of sustainability. That includes things that aren't really green by any stretch of the imagination—things like fossil fuel trade groups, car companies, and big box stores.

The Green Life, a website designed to help people make greener consumer choices, decided to host a competition in honor of the recently passed April Fool's Day to recognize the biggest "greenwashers" out there. Perhaps it's no surprise, but the list their readers came up with includes some familiar faces for Mother Jones readers:

  1. America’s Natural Gas Alliance claims to protect air, water, and land, while actually lobbying against common-sense safeguards.
  2. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which uses odd food analogies and meaningless claims.
  3. Walmart, which used a much-hyped going-green campaign to hide its core unsustainable business.
  4. Fiji Water was found guilty of greenwashing for calling its water "carbon-negative."
  5. CBS’s EcoAd program, which puts a leafy green logo on any company’s ad for a fee.
  6. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council, which causes rainforests to be cut down, yet sells itself as sustainable.
  7. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which too often promotes just the opposite through a deceptive label.
  8. Mazda, for partnering with The Lorax to sell an SUV.

See our features on the dubious "greenness" of natural gas, Walmart, Fiji water, and Mazda for more.

CO2 Makes Us Hotter

| Thu Apr. 5, 2012 3:35 PM EDT

Maybe this will come across as not a huge surprise for many Blue Marble readers, but a new scientific paper confirms that an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes the planet warmer. The paper, published this week in the highly respected scientific journal Nature, isn't really focused on our current warming problem. Instead, it looks at a period 55.5 million years ago when the Earth also started warming up.

Way back then, the earth was coming out of an ice age. That warming caused the release of carbon dioxide from the melting permafrost and other carbon reserves, and the release of that carbon dioxide in turn caused the planet to heat up even faster. The Guardian explains the conclusions:

The researchers analysed a series of sudden and extreme global warming events called hyperthermals, occurring about 55 million years ago, linked to rising greenhouse gas concentrations and changes in the Earth's orbit, which led to a massive release of carbon into the atmosphere, ocean acidification, and a 5 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature within just a few thousand years.
Previously, researchers thought that the source of the extra carbon was the oceans, in the form of frozen methane gas in ocean-floor sediments, but from this research they conclude that the carbon came from the polar regions.
Andrew Watson, a fellow of the Royal Society and professor at the University of East Anglia, said: "The paper shows that the increase in atmospheric CO2 was very important and drove the global temperature rise, but it also suggests that the initial trigger for the deglaciation was something different – a slight warming and associated slow-down of the Atlantic Ocean circulation. This caused carbon dioxide to start being degassed from the deep oceans, and that in turn drove the global change."

This is important for several reasons. For one, some corners of the climate skeptic world have tried to claim that it's not the CO2 that's heating up the planet—it's just that CO2 rates are increasing as the planet warms for other reasons (sun spots, earth's orbit, God hugging us tighter). But this study affirms that a slight, gradual warming caused the release of CO2, which in turn triggered rapid warming.

The paper also supports the concern among scientists that our current warming will only get worse as the earth releases stored carbon from things like the icecaps. This is sometimes referred to as a "feedback loop" or "runaway" global warming—as in, even if humans start putting the brakes on burning fossil fuels right now, we might already be careening off the cliff.

Tsunami Wreckage Crosses the Ocean

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 5:27 PM EDT

 Tsunami debris track.: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using model data courtesy of Jan Hafner, International Pacific Research Center.

Tsunami debris track: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using model data courtesy of Jan Hafner, International Pacific Research Center.

Where's the  5 million tons of debris from Japan's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami headed? The government of Japan estimates that 70 percent of it sank to the seafloor while 1.5 million tons kept floating. The map above and video below show track predictions of the Surface Currents from Diagnostic (SCUD) model. From NASA's Earth Observatory:

Orange and red shaded areas represent parcels of water with a high probably of containing floating debris. The deeper the red color, the higher the likely concentration. The debris field stretches roughly 5,000 kilometers by 2,000 kilometers [3,100 by 1,242 miles] across the North Pacific. The model begins with more than 678,000 "tracers" being released from various points along the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011...The still image above shows the predicted distribution of debris by April 3, 2012.

Debris was initially carried by the powerful Kuroshio Current towards the North Pacific Current. Some should reach western North America within a year or two, while much is likely destined for eternal capture in the North Pacific Gyre's garbage patch.

 

 

This Is Your Brain on the Department of Defense

| Tue Apr. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
an MRI brain scan

Science and the military have historically made creepy bedfellows, with military curiosity about neuroscience leading the pack. Yet it's no secret that since the early 1950s, the US military has had a vested interest in harnessing cutting-edge developments in neuroscience to get a leg up on national defense (a la well-publicized failures like Project MK-ULTRA). In 2011, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's research arm credited with, among other things, spearheading the invention of the internet, had a budget of over $240 million devoted to cognitive neuroscience research alone. From brain-scan-based lie detection to memory-erasure pills, some of the technologies are, at first glance, simply the stuff of sci-fi. But an essay published in the March issue of PLoS Biology tells a cautionary tale of high-tech neuroscience developments on the horizon that "could be deployed before sufficiently validated."