Last month was Earth’s warmest July on record — and by most measures the hottest month, period.

By Tom Yulsman | August 15, 2019 8:11 pm
Earth baked in July — making it the hottest month on record, according to two analyses, and in a tie for that title in a third.
Most of our planet baked in July — earning the title for hottest month on record, according to two analyses, and in a tie in a third. (Source: NASA GISTEMP)

Two analyses out today show that in July, Earth endured its hottest month on record.

A third analysis shows last month in a tie with August 2016 for the dubious title of Earth’s hottest month in records dating back to the 1880s.

Also out today: An update from the National Snow and Ice Data Center shows that Arctic sea ice is currently in a dead heat with 2012 for title of lowest extent on record. We’ll know in September how this finally turns out.

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Lighting crackles near the North Pole in an almost unheard of event

By Tom Yulsman | August 12, 2019 8:09 pm
Lightning near the North Pole: sensors detected strikes just 300 miles away on Saturday.
Lightning was detected in association with a thunderstorm located over the Arctic Ocean on Saturday, Aug. 11. (Source: National Weather Service)

We’re accustomed to lightning crackling within thunderstorms over relatively warm places like Florida — which happens to be the U.S. lightning champ.

But lightning near the North Pole? Well, that’s what happened on Saturday. And so now we get to add this to the list of extreme events that have befallen the Arctic this summer.

These include raging wildfires, dramatic losses of sea ice, and a heat-wave that caused about 55 billion tons of ice to melt from the Greenland Ice Sheet during a five day period in late July and early August.

The lightning within the Arctic thunderstorms was detected by a network of sensors a mere 300 miles from the North Pole between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time, according to the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, AK.

The event was so unusual that it prompted a Tweet from the weather service saying it was one of the furthest north occurrences of lightning in the memory of Alaskan forecasters.

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Watch as Typhoon Lekima wobbles, just missing a Japanese city

By Tom Yulsman | August 10, 2019 12:52 pm
Typhoon Lekima threads the needle between Japanese islands with jig and jag movements scientists call "trochoidal motions"
An animation of Himawari 8 satellite images shows Typhoon Lekima threading the needle between Japanese islands. (Note: The animation is a big file so it may take a moment to load. Source: SSEC/CIMSS)

Typhoon Lekima blasted ashore south of the mega-city of Shanghai early on Saturday local time, whipping the coast with sustained winds of around 115 miles per hour.

A million people were evacuated ahead of the storm, which has caused 13 deaths. Now a tropical storm, Lekima is churning north through eastern China, raising risks for major flooding and mud slides.

The animation of Himawari-8 satellite imagery above shows Typhoon Lekima on Thursday, Aug. 8 as it was passing through the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. It documents dramatic behavior by the eye of the storm. So be sure to click on the screenshot, and then be a little patient if it takes a moment for the high-resolution animation to load.

At the start of the infrared view, Lekima whirls northwestward, looking all the world like a buzzsaw aimed at Ishigaki Island, home to one of Japan’s southernmost cities. At the time, it was very dangerous typhoon, with sustained winds equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane.

But then, at the very last moment, Lekima’s eye abruptly bobs and weaves, avoiding Ishigaki and threading the needle between the islands of Tarama and Irabu. The eye wall seems to brush Tarama, the tiny island to the left.

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Nuclear winter researcher: study of wildfires confirms dire climate risk from even a ‘small’ nuclear war

By Tom Yulsman | August 8, 2019 2:01 pm

New research uses wildfire smoke as a natural experiment for testing nuclear winter theory, but uncertainties remain

British Columbia wildfires allow scientists to test aspects of nuclear winter — dramatic cooling from soot lofted into the stratosphere after bombs cause cities to burn
An animation of GOES-16 weather satellite imagery reveals thick palls of smoke billowing up from wildfires in British Columbia on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. The smoke rose into the stratosphere and ultimately circled the globe. Eight months later, some was still visible to satellites. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA)

Raging wildfires lofting huge amounts of smoke high into the atmosphere have been making headlines with increasing frequency — thanks in large part to their connection with human-caused climate change

Now, there may be another reason to pay attention to these fires: A new study, just published in Science, has used one such blaze as a kind of natural experiment to test aspects of an idea first raised by scientists at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s: nuclear winter.

A co-author of the study says the research supports earlier findings that even a relatively small, regional nuclear war would have dire climatic consequences. The cause: smoke billowing up from burning cities.

“The smoke would be lofted into the stratosphere, lasting for years and carried by winds around the entire Earth,” says Alan Robock, a Rutgers University climate scientist.

Robock was an early proponent of the original nuclear winter theory of the 1980s. Based on relatively simple computer modeling, the theory held that a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia would have indirect impacts even more cataclysmic than the direct ones from explosions, radiation and fires.

Smoke from blazing cities would blot out the sun, causing the climate to cool by as much as 45 degrees F in the northern mid-latitudes, with cold temperatures lasting for years. The ultimate result: crop failures, global famine, and even the extinction of the human species.

As Carl Sagan, one of the original proponents of nuclear winter, put it in 1983: “For the first time, we see that the consequences of nuclear war may be absolutely devastating for nations far removed from the conflict.”

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10 billion tons of meltwater poured off Greenland in a day — but are things as bad as the Twittersphere says?

By Tom Yulsman | August 1, 2019 9:45 pm
Greenland melting
Comparison of satellite images of the western edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet about 250 miles across, one acquired in 2018 on July 30, and the other on July 31 of this year. Vastly expanded areas of blue in this year’s image are indicative of water at the surface. The gray area, known as the “ablation zone,” is where ice is exposed and experiencing melting. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

As forecast, the dome of heat that brutalized Western Europe has moved over Greenland, where it has triggered a massive spike in surface melting of snow and ice.

In coming days, the abnormal heat could also cause the Arctic’s floating lid of sea ice — which is already trending at record low levels for this time of year — to shrivel even further.

But if you pay attention to Twitter, it almost seems as if we’ve entered the Arctic Apocalypse. So with this story, I decided to take a deep breath and report as dispassionately as I could on what’s happening.

I started by getting in touch with Mark Serreze, Director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center — which among other things, publishes daily updates on surface melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the extent of Arctic sea ice. I asked him for his overall take on what’s happening. Here’s what he told me:

“There have always been what one could call ‘heat waves’ in the Arctic,” he said. That’s just part of the natural variability of weather.

But now that natural variability is happening atop the long-term trend of human-caused warming — which is manifesting more intensely in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth. As a result, “the heat waves are becoming hotter,” Serreze says.

And make no mistake: This one is very toasty: Temperatures in Greenland have been running up to 30 degrees above average this week. At the highest point in Greenland, 10,551 feet above sea level, temperatures remained above freezing for 11 hours on Tuesday — an exceedingly unusual occurrence.

As a result, the extent of surface melting is equal to an area nearly one and a half times the size of Texas.

That’s concerning enough. But there’s also a possibility that the “ablation rate” — meaning the rate at which ice actually melts — could hit a record today (July 31).

That said, when it comes to the percentage of Greenland’s surface that has experienced melting so far, this is how things looked yesterday compared to the record-setting year of 2012:

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A whale of a tail: humpback Morse code, and a phytoplankton bloom so intense it’s visible from space

By Tom Yulsman | July 29, 2019 4:32 pm

While I was on a whale-watching trip out of Akureyri, Iceland in late June, a humpback whale approached our boat and began vigorously slapping its tail and pectoral fins on the water. The humpback was breathtakingly close to us, and the dramatic behavior lasted for more than five minutes.

Check it out in the video I shot above. (Please accept my apologies for the distracting wind noise — I was not equipped at the time with an external mic and windscreen.)

This may look like the whale is saying, “Get the hell out of here!” But research suggests this common behavior is a form of close-range communication with other whales. More about that in a minute.

But first, what’s a story ostensibly about marine biology doing in a blog dedicated to remote sensing and the science of our planet?

It turns out that in this case, there’s a clear connection between whales, satellite imagery, and earth science. Let me explain…

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As Earth’s high north blazes with intense wildfires, Europe’s heat is about to invade the Arctic

By Tom Yulsman | July 26, 2019 1:45 pm
As the Suomi NPP satellite watched on July 21, 2019, a storm over Russia's high north pulled wildfire smoke into its giant vortex.
As the Suomi NPP satellite watched overhead on July 21, 2019, a swirling low-pressure system over Siberia pulled wildfire smoke into its giant vortex . (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

Heat records were obliterated across Western Europe yesterday, with Paris reaching an unfathomable all-time high of nearly 109 degrees.

It’s the second heat wave in the region in as many months — and this one has been even more brutal than June’s. As I wrote earlier this week, research shows that human-caused climate change has dramatically upped the odds for extreme heat events like this.

More broadly, July is on track to be the warmest month ever directly recorded on Earth, and 2019 is all but certain to be a top five year.

With all of this in mind, it should probably come as no surprise that a staggering number of intense wildfires have been blazing across vast stretches of Earth’s northern latitudes. Over the last six weeks, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service has tracked more than 100 intense and long-lived wildfires in the Arctic.

As a release from CAMS observes, these blazes are pumping an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — which, of course, only exacerbates global warming further:

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Europe broils under yet another heat dome. What’s the connection to climate change?

By Tom Yulsman | July 24, 2019 8:23 pm
The forecast for Western Europe: brutal heat continues
The forecast for maximum temperatures shows brutal heat across large parts of Western Europe. (Source: Climate Reanalyzer)

Here we go again, another Western European heat wave.

Except this one is even more intense than the one back in June and early July — an event that research tentatively suggests was made at least five times more likely to occur by human-caused climate change.

Now, with another “heat dome” strengthening over the continent, high temperature records have tumbled once again. In fact, Germany may have just seen the highest temperature ever recorded in the country: 104.9 degrees F.

Even more brutal heat is on the way. The forecast for Paris for Thursday, July 25th is for a high temperature of 105 F. If the mercury climbs that high, it would break the previous record of 104.7 F set more than 70 years ago.

I’ll get into the connections between climate change and heat waves in a just a bit. But first, the proximate cause of this one is a big, intense area of high pressure — that heat dome — with the jet stream flowing around it in a pattern called an “omega block.”

Here’s what the Greek letter omega looks like:

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NASA: Last month was the warmest June on record. Will July turn out to be the warmest month ever observed?

By Tom Yulsman | July 19, 2019 11:21 am
Following a record warm June, July could down as the warmest month ever observed on Earth
Satellite image of a wildfire blazing in in the Qeqqata Kommunia of western Greenland. The image consists of data acquired by a Sentinel satellite on July 14th, 2019 in the infrared and visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. (Source: Copernicus Sentinel Data processed by Pierre Markuse)

Last month has gone into the books as the warmest June on record, beating out 2016 by a comfortable margin, according to the latest global analysis by NASA.

Now, more than half way through July, conditions haven’t really cooled off. That’s probably not breaking news to you if you happen to live in the two-thirds of the United States stretching from the central to eastern United States. The region is now stifling under a dangerous summer heat wave expected to cause dozens of records to fall.

Meanwhile, in western Greenland, record high temperatures have been implicated in a very unusual wildfire, seen in the satellite image at the top of this story.

“It occurred near a hut on the Arctic Circle Trail and was likely started accidentally by a hiker,” according to a story at NASA’s Earth Observatory site. “Warm, dry weather helped set the stage for the fire. Meteorological data shows the region has been unusually hot and dry in recent months. And it was particularly warm the day that the fire burned.”

The Greenland blaze is not an isolated phenomenon. As Andrew Freedman reports in the Washington Post:

. . . the Greenland fire fits a broader pattern that is raising alarms in the climate science community. According to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), the European science organization tracked more than 100 ‘intense and long-lived wildfires’ above the Arctic Circle since June. Calculations show these fires emitted enough carbon dioxide to be the equivalent of Sweden’s total annual emissions.

Globally, this month is on track to take the title as warmest July on record. Since July naturally is the warmest month the year, that would make this month the warmest ever observed with instruments.

As climate scientist Michael E. Mann put it on Twitter recently:

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A dramatic view of Tropical Storm Barry unlike any you may have seen before

By Tom Yulsman | July 12, 2019 5:38 pm
Tropical Storm Barry
An animation of GOES-16 satellite imagery acquired in the infrared reveals the evolution of Tropical Storm Barry on Friday, July 12, 2019. The crackling white and blue areas are indicative of lightning activity. (Source: RAMMB/CIRA GOES-16/17 Loop of the Day)

Tropical Storm Barry is now expected to make landfall as a hurricane.

As I’m writing this Thursday afternoon, July 12, Barry is churning slowly over the northern Gulf of Mexico, strengthening as it tarries over warm water. As it nears the coast and then pushes inland, the storm threatens to push up dangerous storm surges and dump up to 20 inches of rain.

Storm surge is already a problem:

The City of New Orleans has ordered people to shelter in place, effective at 8 p.m. local time.

Officials are closing floodgates ahead of what’s expected to be life-threatening flooding along the central Gulf Coast and into the Lower Mississippi Valley.

The distinctive animation of GOES-16 weather satellite images at the top of this post shows Barry over the Gulf between 9 and 11:30 a.m. local time today. Consisting of infrared images collected at one minute intervals, it’s an unusual view (known technically as “Day Cloud Phase Distinction RGB“) showing both the evolution of convective storminess and lightning activity.

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ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

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