Five Lessons From Seven Years of Research Into Buttons

By Rachel Plotnick, Indiana University | February 4, 2019 4:45 pm
button push

You know you want to push it. (Credit: luckyraccoon/Shutterstock)

All day every day, throughout the United States, people push buttons – on coffee makers, TV remote controls and even social media posts they “like.” For more than seven years, I’ve been trying to understand why, looking into where buttons came from, why people love them – and why people loathe them.

As I researched my recent book, “Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing,” about the origins of American push-button society, five main themes stood out, influencing how I understand buttons and button-pushing culture.

1. Buttons Aren’t Actually Easy to Use

In the late 19th century, the Eastman Kodak Company began selling button-pushing as a way to make taking photographs easy. The company’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest,” suggested it wouldn’t be hard to use newfangled technological devices. This advertising campaign paved the way for the public to engage in amateur photography – a hobby best known today for selfies.


Just give it a try. (Credit: George Eastman Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

Yet in many contexts, both past and present, buttons are anything but easy. Have you ever stood in an elevator pushing the close-door button over and over, hoping and wondering if the door will ever shut? The same quandary presents itself at every crosswalk button. Programming a so-called “universal remote” is often an exercise in extreme frustration. Now think about the intensely complex dashboards used by pilots or DJs.

For more than a century, people have been complaining that buttons aren’t easy: Like any technology, most buttons require training to understand how and when to use them.

plane cockpit buttons

It takes a lot of training to know what all those buttons are for. (Credit: U.S. Air Force/Kelly White)

2. Buttons Encourage Consumerism

The earliest push buttons appeared on vending machines, as light switches and as bells for wealthy homeowners to summon servants.

Tide button

It’s almost too easy. (Credit: Alexander Klink/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY)

At the turn of the 20th century, manufacturers and distributors of push-button products often tried to convince customers that their every whim and desire could be gratified at a push – without any of the mess, injury or effort of previous technologies like pulls, cranks or levers. As a form of consumption, button pushing remains pervasive: People push for candy bars and tap for streaming movies or Uber rides.

Amazon’s “Dash” button takes push-button pleasure to the extreme. It’s tempting to think about affixing single-purpose buttons around your house, ready to instantly reorder toilet paper or laundry detergent. But this convenience comes at a price: Germany recently outlawed Dash buttons, because they don’t let customers know how much they’ll pay when they place an order.

3. Button-pushers are Often Seen as Abusive

Throughout my research, I discovered that people worry that buttons will fall into the wrong hands or be used in socially undesirable ways. My children will push just about any button within their reach – and sometimes those not within reach, too. The children of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the same. People often complained about children honking automobile horns, ringing doorbells and otherwise taking advantage of buttons that looked fun to press.

Adults, too, often received criticism for how they pushed. In the past, managers triggered ire for using push-button bells to keeping their employees at their beck and call, like servants. More recently there are stories in the news about disgraced figures like Matt Lauer using buttons to control the comings and goings of his staff, taking advantage of a powerful position.

4. Some of the Most-feared Buttons Aren’t Real

Beginning in the late 1800s, one of the most common fears registered about buttons involved warfare and advanced weapons: Perhaps one push of a button could blow up the world.

This anxiety has persisted from the Cold War to the present, playing prominently in movies like “Dr. Strangelove” and in news headlines. Although no such magic button exists, it’s a potent icon for how society often thinks about push-button effects as swift and irrevocable. This concept is also useful in geopolitics. As recently as 2018, President Donald Trump bragged to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over Twitter that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

5. Not a Lot Has Changed in More Than a Century

As I completed my book, I was struck by how much voices of the past echoed those of the present when discussing buttons. Since the 1880s, American society has deliberated about whether button pushing is a desirable or dangerous form of interaction with the world.

Persistent concerns remain about whether buttons make life too easy, pleasurable or rote. Or, on the flip side, observers worry that buttons increase complexity, forcing users to fiddle unnecessary with “unnatural” interfaces.

car button

Buttons can be hard to resist. (Credit: apiguide/Shutterstock)

Yet as much as people have complained about buttons over the years, they remain stubbornly present – an entrenched part of the design and interactivity of smartphones, computers, garage door openers, car dashboards and videogame controllers.

As I suggest in “Power Button,” one way to remedy this endless discussion about whether buttons are good or bad is to instead begin paying attention to power dynamics – and the ethics – of push buttons in everyday life. If people begin to examine who gets to push the button, and who doesn’t, in what contexts, under which conditions, and to whose benefit, they might begin to understand buttons’ complexity and importance.


Rachel Plotnick is the author of:

Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic and the Politics of PushingThe Conversation

MIT Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

Rachel Plotnick, Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: gadgets, psychology

Henrietta Leavitt, the Woman Who Gave Us a Ruler to Measure the Universe

By Korey Haynes | February 4, 2019 9:00 am
hubble galaxy picture

Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s work revealed the true size of the universe. (Image credit: A. Fujii/ESA/Hubble)

Gazing up at the sky, it’s hard not to imagine the sun, moon, stars, and planets as part of an inverted bowl over our heads, even if we know that’s an antiquated way of viewing the heavens. These days, we understand it’s the Earth that’s spinning, spinning daily like a ballerina while also circling the sun on its yearly journey. But the bowl imagery was and remains a reasonable way of envisioning how the skies appear to revolve around us, and when certain stars appear or disappear with the changing hour or season.

But to understand the universe as it really is, we need a three-dimensional picture of the skies. The Copernican revolution started this change in perspective, but it took until the 20th century for a true understanding of the universe’s scale and layout to evolve.

The researcher who provided one of the biggest keys was a deaf woman who earned 30 cents an hour. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: cosmology, stars

Iconic NASA Missions That Improved With Age

By Korey Haynes | February 2, 2019 8:15 am
thousands of galaxies

Images such as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, released in 2014, would have been impossible without the many upgrades the telescope received over its lifetime. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI))

NASA is often viewed as the epitome of big ideas and extreme planning. But sometimes even they go above and beyond, either with incredible improvised fixes, or missions that survived the test of time and then some.

Hubble Got Glasses

blurry galaxy (left), same galaxy in focus (right)

Galaxy M101 before (left) and after Hubble received its vision upgrade. (Image credit: NASA)

The greatest space telescope astronomers have was almost a giant flop. When the telescope launched in 1991, the pictures it sent back were muddled and far below the predicted quality. It turned out a mirror had been ground to the wrong specifications, leaving Hubble’s vision blurry. NASA had a few short years to figure out a fix before the first servicing mission was due in 1993. Since the mirror was too integral a part to replace in space, scientists did the next best thing – they gave Hubble glasses, in the form of COSTAR, the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement system. Astronauts installed the corrective equipment during a space shuttle servicing mission, and suddenly Hubble could return the eye-catching images it’s so famous for today.

Over time, NASA swapped out the original instruments, replacing them with upgraded devices that included their own corrections so that by 2002, COSTAR was no longer necessary. Astronauts brought Hubble’s glasses back to Earth in 2009 to make room for yet more upgraded equipment, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.

The telescope managed to take data even during its first few fuzzy years, and it’s predicted to keep working until 2025. Thirty-four years at the same job is impressive for most humans, and they don’t have to operate in space.

Rovers Refuse to Quit

illustration of rover on martian surface

The Opportunity Rover was wildly successful in its mission of delivering images and geologic data about the martian terrain it traversed during its fourteen years of active duty. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC)

The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity had a designated mission duration of about 90 days (technically 90 sols, or martian days). NASA lost contact with the rover on June 10, 2018, after dust storms drained its power. The mission isn’t officially dead yet, but hopes are dimming that the rover will reawaken. But by the time it went quiet it had explored for over 14 years, well over 50 times its original goal. Its twin, Spirit, explored for five years before getting stuck in soft soil. Both massively outlived and outperformed expectations.

During their adventures, the rovers explored more than 30 miles of martian terrain, taking images and spectra, and scraping up martian soil to investigate the layers just under the surface. Their travels weren’t without mishaps. Opportunity got stuck in a sand dune for several weeks in 2005 before engineers managed to wiggle it free. In early 2006, one of Spirit’s front wheels stopped working. Engineers figured out how to let the rover drive on five wheels instead – largely by driving backwards and dragging its non-functioning wheel. Engineers built the rovers sturdily enough to handle these hiccups, and the Red Planet sometimes gave surprising aid – like when Spirit observed serendipitous dust devils whose associated breezes also cleared off its dusty solar panels.

By 2015, Opportunity was suffering from a glitchy memory, but mission scientists were able to reformat its brains to keep working anyway. The rover sent back valuable science until the storm descended that finally ended its much extended mission.

With the benefit of time and the experience of Spirit and Opportunity to guide them, engineers built Mars’ newest rover, Curiosity, to last for nearly two years. It’s more than seven years since Curiosity started its adventure, and while it’s still going strong, it still has quite a ways to go to match Opportunity’s records.

Kepler Rose From the Dead

Illustration of the Kepler spacecraft in orbit

(Image Credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel)

The Kepler telescope’s hunt for exoplanets, worlds circling stars other than our own sun, was originally a three-year mission. While the telescope performed admirably, its data taught astronomers that stars were a little noisier than expected, meaning Kepler needed more time to accomplish its original goals. Three years in, in April of 2012, the telescope was working like a dream, and so researchers cheerfully granted the telescope a further three years of funding and planet-hunting.

Even with the noisy stars, Kepler changed the face of astronomy. Exoplanets bloomed into a full field of research as Kepler sent the number of discovered worlds skyrocketing. The longer Kepler stared into space, the better its data got. And researchers scoured that data for the tiniest signals, reaping planets beyond Kepler’s stated abilities.

But within three months of receiving its extended mission status, one of Kepler’s four reaction wheels stopped working. These are the wheels that let it point very precisely at its targets in the sky. Since it only needed three wheels to function, the mission continued. Then a second wheel broke the following year, halting the telescope’s work.

For months, scientists tested the wheels, attempting to improvise a solution. They crowd-sourced ideas, reaching out to the scientific community for inspiration, and then tested those plans. Almost a year to the day after the second reaction wheel failed, NASA announced Kepler’s new life as K2. Since the telescope couldn’t point itself accurately anymore, scientists taught the spacecraft a new orbital maneuver, where they let sunlight push the telescope for them. Kepler would now stare out past the edge of the solar system, balanced neatly in a stream of sunbeams. For two more years, K2 continued searching the skies, finding more exoplanets, as well as supernova explosions and tiny asteroids, until it finally ran out of fuel – a problem NASA has not yet learned to solve from afar.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: space exploration

Beyond Good or Bad: Searching For a Diet That Balances The Many Kinds of Fat

By Heidi Silver, Vanderbilt University | January 31, 2019 11:00 am
healthy fat avocado nuts fish

A mix of fats, such as those found in nuts, avocados, salmon and olives, could be healthy and more satisfying. (Credit: Craevschii Family/Shutterstock)

Public health guidelines, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, have long emphasized reducing dietary fat intake, but nutritionists and other health scientists now have more recent evidence that not all fats have adverse effects. Dietary fats differ with regard to their effects on health and risk for chronic diseases, particularly in regard to effects on risk for heart disease.

Indeed, some nutrition experts now believe that certain types of dietary fat may even reduce cardiovascular risk. Some dietary fats may lower fats in the blood called triglycerides. They may also increase levels of HDL, or what is known as the “good” cholesterol, and reduce LDL-cholesterol, or the less healthy type of cholesterol, thus improving the HDL to total cholesterol ratio.

Also, many diet plans that do not strictly limit the total amount of dietary fat a person consumes have been associated with better diet satisfaction, weight loss, and preservation of muscle mass.

As a research professor in the field of nutrition and dietetics, I am convinced that findings from our work, along with other published current evidence, show that the concept that dietary fat is “toxic” is very much outdated and misguided.

Although there is conclusive evidence that one type of fat, trans fat, has no place in a healthy diet, it’s important to learn how to balance the other types of fats in the diet. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: nutrition

One Time America Thought About Nuking the Moon, and a Few Times Humans Smashed Things Into It Anyway

By Korey Haynes | January 31, 2019 9:30 am
spacecraft in view with explosion on moon

Whether small and scientific or large and ghastly, humans keep finding excuses to crash things into the moon. (Image Credit: NASA)

The 1950s were a bizarre period in American history. An economic boom brought joy to a generation home from war, and also harbored a strange level of distrust, of enemies both internal and external, in a nation not quite at war, but not quite at peace either. Technology was advancing in leaps and bounds, and the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was underway. To America’s dismay, the Soviets were winning – at least at first.

But before humans set foot on the moon and America relaxed into self-declared victory, the U.S. seriously considered a surprising plan. The military wanted to nuke the moon. In their defense, it was a very tiny nuclear weapon, only a tenth or so the size of bomb America dropped on Hiroshima. And while such an idea seems absurd by today’s standards, the 1950s saw hundreds of nuclear test explosions on Earth by the American, Soviet, and British governments. The moon’s remote location and lack of inhabitants makes it an almost sane choice by comparison. And while the plan never came to fruition, humans have actually blown up the moon’s surface a handful of times.

Crashing into the Moon for Science

illustration of spacecraft releasing an impactor toward the moon

NASA’s LCROSS mission slammed objects into the moon’s surface to see what it was made of. (Image credit: NASA)

During the Apollo missions, astronauts detonated a few small explosions. Lunar researchers weren’t sure at the time whether the moon had moonquakes. So, astronauts brought sensing equipment to listen to the moon’s potential rumbles. Listening to reverberations in the moon’s outer layers can tell scientists a lot about what those layers are made of. So astronauts set off test shakes thanks to small explosives. It turns out, the moon does have small quakes on its own, but both real and induced tremors taught researchers about the moon’s hidden depths.

Humans largely left the moon alone for a few decades after that. But in 2008, India launched its first lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1, which successfully reached lunar orbit. Once there, it released a small impactor, the polite research term for an artificial meteoroid they slammed into the moon’s surface. It kicked up a plume of lunar dust, allowing its partner spacecraft still in orbit to investigate the cloud for signs of water.

Not to be outdone in explosions, NASA sent up the LCROSS mission the following year. LCROSS sent its depleted rocket stage plummeting into the moon’s surface, studied the resulting larger plume with a shepherding spacecraft, and then crashed that spacecraft into the moon as well for good measure, monitoring the entire process from above.

This series of impacts taught researchers about water on the moon, which future moon bases will have to rely on. habitability. Also, neither mission littered the moon with radioactive debris, unlike, say, a nuclear weapon.

The Plan That (Thankfully) Failed

report cover

The report contemplating nuking the moon is available online these days.

The plan from 1958 didn’t have either of those benefits. Designers conceived the plan largely to boost America’s ego over the space race it was in the midst of losing to the Soviet Union, not for any real scientific value. And it would have definitely contaminated the moon’s surface for future investigations, marring what scientists today see as a wonderfully nearby and nearly pristine record of early solar system history. For both these reasons, as well as fears over what would happen if the weapon’s launch wasn’t successful – an armed warhead and falls back toward Earth – the plan was scrapped.

Strangely enough, the Soviet Union may have considered nearly the same nuclear plan, for largely the same reasons: in their case, to prove and maintain their superior stance in space.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed on both sides.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts

How Scientists Are Using Ultrasound To Control Genes, Cells and More

By Bob Holmes | January 30, 2019 2:04 pm

Focused beams of ultrasound can reach deep into the brain to deliver drugs or gene therapies to targeted areas with millimeter precision. (Credit: Knowable Magazine)

Most parents’ first glimpse of their children comes in ultrasound images taken months before birth. But ultrasound could soon offer much more than prenatal portraits. In the past few years, researchers have opened a new door for ultrasound, developing techniques that harness the familiar, safe and noninvasive sound waves to control genes, alter brain function and deliver drugs to targets with millimeter precision.

The advance of what’s being termed sonogenetics offers a new twist on one of biology’s biggest recent successes. For about a decade, biologists have been able to control genes and nerve cells by activating light-sensitive proteins with laser light. The technique, known as optogenetics, has transformed the field of neuroscience, and its use is spreading to many other branches of biology. With light, researchers can now control the firing patterns of individual nerve cells, turn on specific regulatory genes in particular cells to see how this affects development, and do many other things. But optogenetics faces a critical shortcoming: Light doesn’t penetrate very far into living tissue, so its applications are mostly limited to tiny, transparent animals, cell cultures in petri dishes and where optical fibers can be surgically implanted into deeper tissue.

Ultrasound waves, in contrast, penetrate deep into tissues — hence their use for fetal imaging. They also can be focused almost as precisely as laser beams. At that millimeter-sized focus, ultrasound pulses can gently warm or physically jiggle cells. (More intense pulses can heat cells enough to kill them, an effect long used to destroy rogue regions of the brain to treat disorders such as essential tremor, a Parkinson’s-like disease.)

As researchers develop cellular switches that are sensitive to temperature or vibration, they are gaining control over cellular processes beyond the reach of optogenetics. “This has the potential to provide the core capability of optogenetics, but now you can do it noninvasively in deep tissues,” says Mikhail Shapiro, a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

ultrasound in cells

Researchers can use focused ultrasound waves to control cells by pushing motion-sensitive molecular switches (top), by heating temperature-sensitive ones (middle), or by causing microbubbles in blood to swell and collapse (bottom), stretching the walls of surrounding blood vessels and allowing small molecules to pass through.

For example, Shapiro is developing temperature-sensitive switches to control gene function. Most cells naturally have switches of this sort, but those typically aren’t powerful enough for research use: gentle warming turns up gene activity only about tenfold, which can be difficult to detect amid all the processes going on in a living organism. But Shapiro’s team found two proteins — one from a bacterium, the other from a virus — that had a 300-fold effect on gene activity over a 3-degree shift in temperature. After some genetic tweaking, he tuned these proteins to respond at different temperatures ranging from 32°C to 46°C. “As a result, now we have a whole library of thermal bioswitches, so you can pick the temperature you want them to operate at,” he says.

So far, his team has used genetic engineering to insert the temperature switches into bacteria. Other researchers are beginning to put them in mammalian cells, too.

Still others are developing genetic switches that are activated by ultrasound-induced vibrations, rather than heating, with a report last year on the technique’s use in cancer immunotherapies. Eventually, it could also be used to explore the function of genes by selectively turning them on or off in particular cells to see what happens.

Researchers have also found that the right sort of focused ultrasound pulses can somehow excite or inhibit nerve cells directly, even without specially engineered switches. The effect is not as precise as the switches, but can be sufficient for some studies.

Squeezing Past the Blood-brain Barrier

Ultrasound may also find use as a tool to insert genes into specific brain cells called neurons. Ordinarily, cells in intact, living brains are difficult to genetically engineer, because the cells lining blood vessels in the brain seal tightly against one another to keep pathogens and large molecules from entering the brain. This blood-brain barrier keeps out the viruses typically used by genetic engineers to introduce new genes.

Nearly two decades ago, Kullervo Hynynen, a medical biophysicist now at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto, showed that focused ultrasound could gently stretch those tight junctions and open the blood-brain barrier. It did so by agitating tiny microbubbles that are often injected in the bloodstream to improve visibility on ultrasound scans. His team and others have used the method to deliver chemotherapy drugs to specific parts of the brain while sparing the rest.

Now Shapiro and his colleagues have used the same technique to slip gene-toting viruses into targeted brain regions. Once through the blood-brain barrier, these viruses can permanently add new genetic switches to those brain cells. The switches can be activated by molecules small enough to cross the barrier on their own.

“We do this brief ultrasound treatment, get the genes into that part of the brain, and then whenever we want to control the neurons at that location in the brain, we just give a pill that turns these neurons on and off,” says Shapiro. His team has used the technique to block the formation of fear memories in mice by selectively inactivating neurons in the hippocampus, a key region for memory that is implicated in anxiety disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

Sound Drug Delivery

A third approach uses ultrasound to control brain activity by triggering the release of drugs in specific regions. One particularly promising example involves the anesthetic propofol. Raag Airan, a radiologist at Stanford University, and his colleagues bind propofol to oily droplets in the blood, which sends the drug around the body. A pulse of focused ultrasound releases the propofol in a specific area. Detached from the droplets, the drug is now in a form small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier on its own and temporarily knock out the function of brain cells at that site.

ultrasonic drug delivery

One example of how ultrasound can be used deliver drugs to a precise target in a rat brain. (Credit: E. Landhuis/Nature 2017)

Besides its use as a research tool, the technique should prove useful for neurosurgeons planning to destroy a particular brain region — to treat seizures, for example — but who want to make sure that the ablation will not have severe side effects. The focused release of propofol should let surgeons preview the effect of their proposed surgery. “The plan is to release this drug only in that specific region and use that to see whether this is the site we want to remove,” says Charles Caskey, a biomedical engineer at Vanderbilt University Medical School in Nashville, Tennessee, who collaborates with Airan’s team.

So far, most of these uses of sonogenetics are still in the proof-of-concept stage, where researchers are verifying that they work and building an arsenal of trusted techniques. Only then will actual clinical and research applications become possible. However, if the techniques pan out, both researchers and medical workers could soon have powerful, new, noninvasive tools at their disposal. If the recent burgeoning of optogenetics is any guide, that’s likely to be a very good thing.


This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.

Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews

Why Climate Change is Bringing the Polar Vortex South

By Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University | January 29, 2019 3:54 pm
freezing conditions

(Credit: Vladimir_Sotnichenko/Shutterstock)

A record-breaking cold wave is sending literal shivers down the spines of millions of Americans. Temperatures across the upper Midwest are forecast to fall an astonishing 50 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius) below normal this week – as low as 35 degrees below zero. Pile a gusty wind on top, and the air will feel like -60 F.

This cold is nothing to sneeze at. The National Weather Service is warning of brutal, life-threatening conditions. Frostbite will strike fast on any exposed skin. At the same time, the North Pole is facing a heat wave with temperatures approaching the freezing point – about 25 degrees Fahrenheit (14 C) above normal.

weather forecast

Predicted near-surface air temperatures (F) for Wednesday morning, Jan. 30, 2019. Forecast by NOAA’s Global Forecast System model. (Credit: Pivotal Weather, CC BY-ND)

What is causing this topsy-turvy pattern? You guessed it: the polar vortex.

In the past several years, thanks to previous cold waves, the polar vortex has become entrenched in our everyday vocabulary and served as a butt of jokes for late-night TV hosts and politicians. But what is it really? Is it escaping from its usual Arctic haunts more often? And a question that looms large in my work: How does global warming fit into the story?

temperature anomalies

Predicted near-surface air temperature differences (C) from normal, relative to 1981-2010. (Credit: Pivotal Weather, CC BY-ND)

Rivers of Air

Actually, there are two polar vortices in the Northern Hemisphere, stacked on top of each other. The lower one is usually and more accurately called the jet stream. It’s a meandering river of strong westerly winds around the Northern Hemisphere, about seven miles above Earth’s surface, near the height where jets fly.

The jet stream exists all year, and is responsible for creating and steering the high- and low-pressure systems that bring us our day-to-day weather: storms and blue skies, warm and cold spells. Way above the jet stream, around 30 miles above the Earth, is the stratospheric polar vortex. This river of wind also rings the North Pole, but only forms during winter, and is usually fairly circular.

Polar Vortex

Dark arrows indicate rotation of the polar vortex in the Arctic; light arrows indicate the location of the polar jet stream when meanders form and cold, Arctic air dips down to mid-latitudes. (Credit: L.S. Gardiner/UCAR, CC BY-ND)

Both of these wind features exist because of the large temperature difference between the cold Arctic and warmer areas farther south, known as the mid-latitudes. Uneven heating creates pressure differences, and air flows from high-pressure to low-pressure areas, creating winds. The spinning Earth then turns winds to the right in the northern hemisphere, creating these belts of westerlies.

Why Cold Air Plunges South

Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have warmed the globe by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 C) over the past 50 years. However, the Arctic has warmed more than twice as much. Amplified Arctic warming is due mainly to dramatic melting of ice and snow in recent decades, which exposes darker ocean and land surfaces that absorb a lot more of the sun’s heat.

Because of rapid Arctic warming, the north/south temperature difference has diminished. This reduces pressure differences between the Arctic and mid-latitudes, weakening jet stream winds. And just as slow-moving rivers typically take a winding route, a slower-flowing jet stream tends to meander.

Large north/south undulations in the jet stream generate wave energy in the atmosphere. If they are wavy and persistent enough, the energy can travel upward and disrupt the stratospheric polar vortex. Sometimes this upper vortex becomes so distorted that it splits into two or more swirling eddies.

These “daughter” vortices tend to wander southward, bringing their very cold air with them and leaving behind a warmer-than-normal Arctic. One of these eddies will sit over North America this week, delivering bone-chilling temperatures to much of the nation.

Deep Freezes in a Warming World

Splits in the stratospheric polar vortex do happen naturally, but should we expect to see them more often thanks to climate change and rapid Arctic warming? It is possible that these cold intrusions could become a more regular winter story. This is a hot research topic and is by no means settled, but a handful of studies offer compelling evidence that the stratospheric polar vortex is changing, and that this trend can explain bouts of unusually cold winter weather.

Undoubtedly this new polar vortex attack will unleash fresh claims that global warming is a hoax. But this ridiculous notion can be quickly dispelled with a look at predicted temperature departures around the globe for early this week. The lobe of cold air over North America is far outweighed by areas elsewhere in the United States and worldwide that are warmer than normal.

world temperatures

Predicted daily mean, near-surface temperature (C) differences from normal (relative to 1979-2000) for Jan. 28-30, 2019. Data from NOAA’s Global Forecast System model. (Credit: Climate Reanalyzer, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine., CC BY-ND)

Symptoms of a changing climate are not always obvious or easy to understand, but their causes and future behaviors are increasingly coming into focus. And it’s clear that at times, coping with global warming means arming ourselves with extra scarfs, mittens and long underwear.The Conversation


Jennifer Francis, Visiting Professor, Rutgers University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

Why Did Darker and Lighter Human Skin Colors Evolve?

By Bridget Alex | January 28, 2019 4:00 pm
evolution of human skin color human migration people walking

Members of the Hamer Tribe walk at sunset in Ethiopia’s Omo River valley. Studies show that new skin colors evolved as humans moved north and south from equatorial Africa toward higher latitudes. (Credit: Kimberly Petts/shutterstock)

Human skin color reflects an evolutionary balancing act tens of thousands of years in the making. There’s a convincing explanation for why human skin tone varies as a global gradient, with the darkest populations around the equator and the lightest ones near the poles. Put simply, dark complexion is advantageous in sunnier places, whereas fair skin fairs better in regions with less sun.

That may seem obvious, considering the suffering that ensues when pale folks visit the beach. But actually, humanity’s color gradient probably has little to do with sunburn, or even skin cancer. Instead, complexion has been shaped by conflicting demands from two essential vitamins: folate and vitamin D. Folate is destroyed by the sun’s ultraviolent (UV) radiation. Whereas the skin kickstarts production of vitamin D after being exposed to those same rays.

Hence, the balancing act: People must protect folate and produce vitamin D. So humans need a happy medium dosage of sun that satisfies both. While the intensity of UV rays is dictated by geography, the amount actually penetrating your skin depends on your degree of pigmentation, or skin color. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: anthropology, evolution

How a Massive Tree-Planting Campaign Eased Stifling Summer Heat in New York City

By Sonja Dümpelmann, Harvard University | January 28, 2019 11:30 am
New York City tree planting

In 1919, 1,376 new Norway Maples were planted along streets in Brooklyn. (Credit: Department of Parks of the Borough of Brooklyn, City of New York)

Many cities, in recent years, have initiated tree planting campaigns to offset carbon dioxide emissions and improve urban microclimates.

In 2007, New York City launched MillionTrees NYC, a program designed to plant 1 million new trees along streets, in parks and on private and public properties by 2017. They hit their goal two years ahead of time.

These programs are popular for a reason: Not only do trees improve the city’s appearance, but they also mitigate the urban heat island effect – the tendency for dense cities to be hotter than surrounding areas. Studies have shown that trees reduce pollutants in the air, and even the mere sight of trees and the availability of green spaces in cities can decrease stress.

But as I show in my new book, “Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin,” trees weren’t always a part of the urban landscape. It took a systematic, coordinated effort to get the first ones planted. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

At San Diego’s Frozen Zoo, a Chance for Animal Immortality

By Amber Dance | January 25, 2019 5:44 pm
sudan endangered rhino extinction

Sudan, the last northern white rhino. (Credit: Steve Tum/shutterstock)

The last male northern white rhinoceros — his name was Sudan — died in March, leaving only two members of the subspecies behind: his daughter and granddaughter.

In the past, those stark facts would have spelled the end. But researchers at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research — home to a frosty menagerie known as the Frozen Zoo — are working to give northern white rhinos a second chance. Since 1975, the institute has been collecting tissues from creatures, some endangered and some not, then growing the cells in the lab and preserving them at a chilly 321 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Zoos already use reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization for animals like gorillas, and artificial insemination for pandas. (Elsewhere, scientists are considering the merits of resurrecting extinct species such as the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon, though they’d have to use ancient DNA for that.) The Frozen Zoo has used its preserved sperm to create pheasant chicks, for example, and has gone as far as making embryos of cheetahs and fertilizing the eggs of southern white rhinoceroses.

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