Yesterday NASA released images from its most recently launched Earth-orbiting satellite, the Suomi NPP. The images it captures demonstrate both the beauty and the benefit that can be gleaned from visions of Earth at night.
The Suomi NPP satellite is significantly more light sensitive than its predecessors. So sensitive, in fact, it can detect the light from a single ship at sea. To put that in numbers: Suomi’s spatial resolution is six times better than the devices that came before it, and the lighting levels show up with 250 times better resolution. And it also has an infrared sensor, which lets it track weather patterns even at night.
Hurricane Irene, seen from the International Space Station
Last August, Hurricane Irene blasted Vermont, destroying hundreds of roads and dragging covered bridges into rivers; in New York, where catastrophic flooding was expected, almost nothing happened. Each year, thousands of people die in hurricanes [pdf], in part because although meteorologists can easily use satellite data to track a storm and predict its landfall, predicting a storm’s windspeed, or intensity, is notoriously difficult. Keeping track of the saltiness of the ocean beneath a hurricane may refine predictions, though: A new paper shows that an influx of freshwater can increase a hurricane’s intensity by almost 50 percent.
When a tropical cyclone passes over the ocean, its strong winds churn up the waters, pulling cold seawater up to the surface. This mixing process cools down both the ocean and the hurricane, and because the storm feeds on heat, it reduces a hurricane’s intensity. But sometimes, something blocks that cold water from reaching the surface.
Have you noticed that it’s been hotter than usual lately? Your answer might reveal your ideology.
Now, it’s old news that American acceptance of global climate change is closely linked to political affiliation: As of 2011, 77 percent of Democrats thought the Earth was getting warmer, but only 43 percent of Republicans agreed. We also already knew that when it gets hotter, more people of both affiliations say the Earth is warming.
But it isn’t necessarily a one-way street. A new study flips it around: Researchers have found that ideology can skew how people perceive local temperature trends. In other words, your answer to “Has it been hotter lately?” can reveal whether you’re an individualist or more community oriented.
The tsunami that slammed into Japan in March 2011 ripped this dock from its rightful home in Misawa and took it on a 15-month voyage to Agate Beach, Oregon, where it arrive this week. A metal plaque with Japanese writing helped confirm its origin. The dock isn’t radioactive, though it may have borne a different danger: invasive species.
Last year’s tsunami caused massive devastation in Japan from the coast to up to three miles inland. And as the water receded, it dragged 5 million tons of debris with it into the ocean. Most of the wreckage sank near the coast of Japan, but some 1.5 million tons drifted out to sea under the influence of winds and currents, initially forming a debris field detectable by satellites and then dispersing. Most of the wreckage is still at sea, but items ranging from an empty ship to a Harley-Davidson have been washed up on Pacific Northwest shores since this past winter.
Thank god for air friction. Without it, falling rain would smack into our heads at hundreds of miles per hour. But friction works both ways—falling raindrops also slow down the movement of air molecules in the atmosphere. A new paper in Science calculated that raindrops dissipate as much kinetic energy from the atmosphere as air turbulence. Granted, at 1.8 watts per square meter and 0.75% of the atmosphere’s total kinetic energy, that’s not very much. What’s surprising is that rain drops are pulling more than their weight, as they make up only 0.01% of the atmosphere’s mass.
Researchers calculated the kinetic energy dissipated by a single raindrop and put it together with precipitation rates around the world. Since satellite precipitation data also show the height from which rain started falling, the researchers could plug how far raindrops fell into their energy calculations. It all adds up across the whole globe: the researchers estimate the total rate of energy dissipation from rainfall to be 1015 Watts. That’s a lot of energy, but still unlikely to affect major weather phenomena like hurricanes or tornados.
[via Nature News]
Image via Shutterstock
Across the US, this winter has been unusually balmy, with precious little snow, or even rain, and with trees taking the warmth as a cue to send out new leaves in January. Temperature data support those impressions: in the first week of the year, temperatures were 40 degrees F higher than average in some parts of the Midwest, Discovery News reports, and snow cover is at 19 percent across the country, compared to an average of 50 percent at this time of year. In notoriously chilly Fargo, North Dakota, the January 4 high temperature of 55 broke the record for the warmest January day on record, and the country has seen close to no rain or snow in this first week of 2012, writes Wunderground meteorologist Jeff Masters. “It has been remarkable to look at the radar display day after day and see virtually no echoes,” he writes, referring to the radar echoes reflected back by storms. “It is very likely that this has been the driest first week of January in U.S. recorded history.”
Why this freaky weather? The answer is, basically, an extremely unusual jet stream over the last few months, Masters explains. The jet stream that defines weather in North America is controlled by the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Arctic Oscillation, climate patterns that reflect differences in sea-level pressure across certain stretches of the globe. And the pressure differences this year have been tremendous—for the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), this year saw the most extreme difference ever recorded in December, and the second most extreme for the Arctic Oscillation (AO).
The Eastern Seaboard is warily watching the progress of Hurricane Irene, wondering what course the storm will take and just how ferocious it will be. Predicting the path of a hurricane still involves some guesswork—but thanks to rapidly improving computer models and data-gathering abilities, Tekla Perry reports in IEEE Spectrum, scientists are able to make more accurate forecasts farther in advance than they were even five or ten years ago. In fact, the predicted track of a hurricane over the next 48 hours today is as accurate as a prediction for the next 24 hours was 10 years ago—a day that can make a big difference for people deciding whether to evacuate and how to prepare before the storm. Boosts in computing power mean scientists can run more, faster, and more detailed simulations of the storm, and technologies like Dopper radar provide detailed data on wind speed, air pressure, and temperature as storms progress.
One cannot look at a single storm, flood, or drought and say conclusively, “climate change caused that.” But what researchers are attempting to do lately is climate change risk assessment—figuring out how much more likely severe events may become as our world continues to warm up. Two new studies in Nature today try to do just that with heavy rains and flooding, saying definitively that warm temperatures make these events more likely.
More-localized weather extremes have been harder to attribute to climate change until now. “Climate models have improved a lot since ten years ago, when we basically couldn’t say anything about rainfall,” says Gabriele Hegerl, a climate researcher at the University of Edinburgh, UK. [Nature]
Hegerl and climate researcher Francis Zwiers were authors on study number one, a broad-based look at how much humans are contributing to intense precipitation events in the Northern Hemisphere. The simple physics of it makes sense: warmer air can hold more water. To show a link, however, the researchers pulled together a half-century of rainfall records, which they compared to the results of eight different climate models.
Richard Allan, a climate scientist at the University of Reading in England who was not part of the study, called the method employed by Zwiers “very rigorous.” He added, “There’s already been quite a bit of evidence showing that there has been an intensification of rainfall” events across the globe. But until now “there had not been a study that formally identified this human effect on precipitation extremes,” Zwiers said. “This paper provides specific scientific evidence that this is indeed the case.” [Washington Post]
“Return to previous Arctic conditions is unlikely.” That’s the understated conclusion from this year’s Arctic Report Card, which found that air temperatures will continue rising and ice will continue melting in the Arctic as global warming continues to take its toll on the region. The annual report was prepared by 69 researchers in eight countries, and was issued by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
What goes on in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The researchers note that conditions in the Arctic can affect global weather, and point to the huge snowstorms that hit the American northeast and mid-Atlantic states last winter as an example.
“Normally the cold air is bottled up in the Arctic,” said Jim Overland of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. But last December and February, winds that normally blow west to east across the Arctic were instead bringing the colder air south to the Mid-Atlantic, he said. “As we lose more sea ice it’s a paradox that warming in the atmosphere can create more of these winter storms,” Overland said at a news briefing. [Washington Post]
The insurance industry’s weather simulator is more awesome than your weather simulator. It can hold nine houses, create hurricane-force conditions on its interior via 750,000-gallon tanks of water, and it just opened.
The Institute Business & Home Safety, an organization backed by the insurance industry, built the $40 million hangar of destruction in South Carolina.
With an update next year, “we’ll shoot hail down from the rafters of the building to simulate hail storms,” said Tim Reinhold, senior vice president of research at Tampa-based IBHS. The goal is to improve building codes and maintenance practices in disaster-prone regions. Such labs, insurers say, help reduce their exposure to catastrophic losses—even at a cost of $100,000 for each large hurricane simulation. [Washington Post]
IBHS conducted its first tests yesterday, blasting a normally constructed house and another made of stronger materials with winds stirred up by 105 giants fans.