Arctic Sea Ice Could be Heading for a New Low

By Tom Yulsman | March 9, 2015 12:19 pm
sea ice extent

The extent of Arctic sea ice has been particularly low in the Sea of Okhotsk. In the animation above, the pink indicates areas where NASA’s Terra satellite detected sea ice on March 5, 2015. The orange line shows the long-term median extent of the ice in this region. I’ve removed the overlays in the animation’s second frame so you can see what the ice looks like from space. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

|Note: See updates below. |

In the ten days between February 25th and March 7th, swaths of sea ice floating across an area of the Arctic the size of Washington state simply vanished.

This sharp drop in Arctic sea ice, following on from a particularly low extent in February, may be a harbinger of a new record: the lowest maximum winter extent for Arctic sea ice in the satellite era.

Each year at the end of the warm season, falling temperatures cause ice to form atop Arctic waters and spread ever more widely during winter. The geographic extent of this ice typically reaches a maximum in the first or second week of March. After that, warming temperatures inexorably cause it to shrink until a minimum is reached, typically in September.

Thanks to human-caused global warming — which has affected the Arctic strongly — both the maximum winter extent of sea ice, and the minimum extent at the end of the warm season, have been getting smaller and smaller over the years. Read More

Birth of El Yawño (I Mean El Niño!) Explained in Five Images

By Tom Yulsman | March 6, 2015 3:09 pm
El Yawno

A visualization of how sea surface temperatures vary from average in the Pacific Ocean (as of March 6, 2015). Warmer colors are indicative of warmer temperatures, and visa versa. (Source:

It’s more like an El Yawño than an El Niño, but it’s here. At last.

That was the news from the Climate Prediction Center yesterday. After a year of teasing us, it looks like the Pacific Ocean has finally shifted over to weak El Niño conditions.

If it were a normal El Niño, this would probably be good news for moisture-starved California. But this is no normal El Niño. It’s really an El Yawño.

That’s because conditions in the Pacific Ocean have just barely crossed the El Niño threshold. So this one is an extreme weakling, and it has finally come “during a time of year when the influence of El Niño on weather patterns in North America or other locations outside of the Tropics is weakening,” writes Emily Becker in the ENSO blog of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

Especially since the rainy season in the West is winding down by March, it is unlikely that these current El Niño conditions will lead to substantial, drought-breaking rains.

The Climate Prediction Center pegs the odds of the El Yawño continuing through summer at just 50 to 60 percent.

Bad news for California, which has only a month or so for snowpack to build up in the mountains. And right now it is at desperately low levels, as Andrew Freedman points out in his post at Mashable.

With all of that as introduction, how have conditions in the Pacific Ocean finally transitioned from neutral to a very weak El Niño?

First, consider the image at the top of this post. It shows how sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean vary from normal today, March 6, 2015. I’ve circled a pool of anomalously warm water in the western and central Pacific. You’d expect something like this during an El Niño.

But the problem is that warmer surface temperatures like this need to have an effect on the atmosphere, and visa versa, for an El Niño to occur. For the past few months, there have been hints of this kind of “coupling” — and now it has crossed the threshold. Just barely.

The following graphics show how. Read More

Watch the Breath of the Earth in This Very Cool Animation

By Tom Yulsman | February 28, 2015 6:33 pm


Driven by energy from the Sun, air circulates in our planet’s atmosphere in complex but regular patterns. Call it the breath of the planet.

And now you can watch it, thanks to this video released by NASA. When you watch it, you won’t exactly be seeing the wind itself. But you will see the weather systems that, in a sense, make those winds visible.

More specifically, the animation is the first ever to offer a global mapping of rainfall and snowfall. And it consists of data from 12 satellites that have been integrated into a single, seamless map using a system called IMERG.

The animation covers the period from April to September 2014. And the precipitation data it portrays covers the 87 percent of the Earth that falls between 60 degrees north and 60 degrees south latitude, updated every half hour.

breath Read More

Arctic Invasion Chokes East Coast Waters With Ice

By Tom Yulsman | February 28, 2015 4:12 pm
Arctic invasion

Ice chokes the waters around New York City and Long Island, as seen in this Landsat 8 image acquired on Feb. 24, 2014. The annotated areas correspond to images below. (Source: NASA Earth Observatory)

The Arctic invasion that has gripped so much of the United States for so long has turned the waters in and around New York City into something resembling the winter shores of Qaanaaq, Greenland.

Well, I guess that’s an exaggeration. But when I went to NASA’s Earth Observatory today and saw satellite images of the ice choked waters around Gotham, the first thing that came to my mind was the floating sea ice off Greenland.

As the Earth Observatory observes, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”:

The eastern half of the United States has been trapped in a deep freeze for most of February 2015. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of records have been set for daily low temperatures, and wave after wave of ice and snowstorms have hit the region. The coldest days of the year usually occur in January, yet February 2015 has been exceptional in many places.

Arctic invasionThe cold in the East contrasts with unusual warmth in the West, including in Alaska, where numerous warm temperature records have been set. Click the thumbnail at right to see this remarkably persistent pattern, tied in large measure to a very wavy jet stream. The map shows how temperatures have departed from the long term mean between January 28 and February 26.

The images featured by NASA’s Earth Observatory today cover a range of locations, including the Buffalo, N.Y. area, Cape Cod, and Delaware Bay. Since I’m originally from New York, I thought I’d focus on that area. Read More

The Ultimate Cure for Hubris

By Tom Yulsman | February 24, 2015 9:12 pm

Source: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (Little SDO)

Yes, I know, I’m obsessed with the Sun. And I swear — I really wan’t intending to post another image of it for awhile. But after I visited the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s “Little SDO” Facebook page today, I couldn’t resist.

I found a mind-blowing image there showing a big glowing splurge of plasma erupting from the Sun out into space. It’s called a solar prominence, and you can see it in the image above. It is twelve and a half Earths in length, or ~160,000 km. The SDO spacecraft spied it last Saturday.

That image is actually an extreme crop of the one I spotted on the Little SDO page, which you can see below. I cropped it to emphasize just how massive that prominence is.

Here’s the full image:

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: select, Sun, Top Posts

Vetoed Keystone XL Pipeline Would Transport Oil Extracted in Gigantic Open Pit Mines That Are Visible From Space

By Tom Yulsman | February 24, 2015 5:09 pm
Keystone XL

Screen shot from a Google Earth Engine animation showing the growth of mining activities for oil sands in Canada near the town of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Please click to watch the animation. (Source: Google)

The news is in: President Obama has just vetoed legislation approved by both houses of the U.S. Congress that would have allowed construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline to go forward. He wielded the veto pen just a matter of hours after the bill reached his desk.

The pipeline has become a symbol in the political battle over climate change. But lost in the clamor is a discussion of the environmental impact of extracting the petroleum from Canada’s vast oil sands fields. So I thought I’d use this post to provide some visual context that might be helpful in understanding that impact.

But first… In his veto message to Congress, Obama wrote: Read More

Evolution of a Hurricane-Force Storm in the North Atlantic

By Tom Yulsman | February 24, 2015 11:47 am


A low pressure system in the North Atlantic that evolved into hurricane-force storm last weekend brought gale force winds and high waves to the United Kingdom and Ireland Sunday and yesterday.

On satellite imagery, the storm looks pretty dramatic, so I thought I’d share some of what I’ve found.

The image above is a screenshot from a video showing the evolution of the storm. The false-color images comprising the video come from a Meteosat weather satellite. This particular remote sensing product is used to monitor the evolution of cyclones, in particular rapid cyclogenesis.

Here’s a description from the Ocean Prediction Center of the National Weather Service:

The low is shown intensifying east of Greenland, and the imagery indicates a stratospheric intrusion with the deep red and purple shading near the low center. This is a sign of strong winds aloft mixing down toward the surface. The system is then shown moving off to the east into Europe.

Read More

Contrarian Scientist Who Says Sun is Responsible for Global Warming is Accused of Taking Corporate Cash for Science

By Tom Yulsman | February 21, 2015 6:27 pm
An eruption of plasma above the Sun's surface on Jan. 31, 2013 formed a long loop that ultimately stretched and then burst outward into space, as seen in this image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. It was acquired in a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light. (Source: NASA SDO)

An eruption of plasma above the Sun’s surface on Jan. 31, 2013 formed a long loop that ultimately stretched and then burst outward into space, as seen in this image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. (Source: NASA SDO)

Willie Soon, a prominent global warming skeptic, says “no amount of money can influence what I say or do or research or write.” If recently released documents are accurate, he is a liar. 

– ⊕ –

During a lecture on climate change in 2013, Willie Soon, a prominent skeptic of human-caused climate change, pointed to a large image showing an explosion of plasma from the Sun and then said that he was “fed up” with the scientific consensus on climate change:

They say it is always the CO2. The Sun could never do it, the Sun. You know it is changing so little, it doesn’t do anything. That’s what they say. I really don’t understand the argument.”


Willie Soon. (Screenshot from Vimeo video.)

In the lecture, he then goes on to say that “the Sun is a primary driver of climate change and requires to be studied.”

If documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act by the environmental group Greenpeace are accurate, Soon has been on the payroll of large corporate donors who have a lot to gain by blocking measures to reduce humankind’s emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases implicated in global warming.

Greenpeace and a second group, the Climate Investigations Center, shared those documents with news organizations last week, including the New York Times and The Guardian.

After reviewing the documents, here’s what the Guardian is reporting today: Read More

Tale of Two Seals: Winners and Losers in a Warming Arctic

By Tom Yulsman | February 15, 2015 3:46 pm
A ringed seal pup outfitted with a satellite-linked transmitter. The pup was released as part of a project to understand the species' habitat ranges throughout the year. (Photograph: Michael Cameron/NOAA)

A ringed seal pup outfitted with a satellite-linked transmitter just prior to being released as part of a project to understand the species’ habitat ranges throughout the year. (Photograph: Michael Cameron/NOAA)

Editor’s note: With the Arctic warming faster than any other region on Earth, floating sea ice in the region has been in decline: The average area of Arctic sea ice shrank at a rate of 57,000 square kilometers each year between 1996 and last year. That’s an area slightly larger than the state of Michigan.

For the animals and other living things that manage to scrape a living in the harsh Arctic environment, you might think that this would be welcome new. And you’d be right — for some species, but most definitely not for others. As scientists learn more about the impacts of human-caused warming in the far north, they are gaining a clearer picture of both the winners and losers. This guest post examines two examples: ringed and harbor seals. It’s by Gloria Dickie, a master’s student in the environmental journalism program I run at the University of Colorado. This is her second post reported from the Arctic Frontiers science conference in Tromsø, Norway. (You can find her first one here.)

——  ⊕  —–

Not all seals are created equal, especially when it comes to impacts from climate change and energy development in the Arctic.

Consider the ringed seal. These blubbery blobs are heavily ice-dependent. They’re the only seal species in the Arctic to forge breathing holes in the ice with their claws (through as much as 7 feet of ice!). They also rely on a floating slabs of sea ice as stable platforms for both resting and reproduction.

In fact, to rear their young, ringed seals actually build caves in snow drifts on floating sea ice.

As Charmain Hamilton, a researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute and University of Tromsø, puts it:

Ringed seals are intimately associated with sea ice for almost every aspect of their existence: pupping, nursing, moulting, resting and some of the foraging all take place associated with sea ice.

So if sea ice continues to shrink, so too could the population of ringed seals. And that would affect other species, most especially the polar bear, for whom the ringed seal is not just a tasty snack but often the primary source of food. Read More

Hurricane-Force Blizzard Takes Aim at New England, With Another Blockbuster Storm Possibly Coming Next Week

By Tom Yulsman | February 14, 2015 6:40 pm
hurricane-force blizzard

An animation of forecast winds at about 18,000 feet. (Source:

Note: Please see the updates below. Since I posted this on Sunday night, the forecast for the second round of storminess has already changed.

As I’m writing this, a storm barreling down from the Great Lakes has approached the Atlantic coast near Washington, D.C. It’s forecast to start marching northeast toward New England tonight into Sunday.

If it sets up as expected, parts of New England could well get walloped by a hurricane-force blizzard.

I’m not using that word lightly. The forecast is for hurricane force winds by Cape Cod:

You can get the blow-by-blow details via the Twitter feed of the National Weather Service in Boston. So I thought I’d put the emphasis on a couple of visualizations. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Extreme Weather, select, Top Posts, Weather

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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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