Seattle’s Rainiest Winter Ever

Monday, March 7, 2016
1:43 pm

The Snohomish River topping its banks on December 9, 2015.
Credit: Brie Hawkins

I’ll be the first to admit that weather forecasters are often wrong. After all, weather forecasting is the only job where you can be wrong 90 percent of the time and keep your job. Still, this winter has flummoxed many seasonal weather forecasters on the West Coast, and although it may not cost them their jobs, it is certainly bringing to light our ineptitude with regards to seasonal forecasting. Forecast models were adamant that the Pacific Northwest would see drier-than-normal conditions throughout the winter, and that the Southwest would be wetter than normal, bringing desperately-needed rainfall to drought-stricken California. Instead, the Pacific Northwest had one of their wettest winters on record, and the southwest was actually drier than normal. Although farmers in our region aren’t complaining, I’m sure that many in California are absolutely furious at meteorologists. I know I would be!

Credit: Western Regional Climate Center

In fact, since our October 1st, which is the beginning of our “water year,” some places in the Pacific Northwest have received more than 20 inches above average of their precipitation for this period. In fact, many areas on the Olympic Peninsula have picked up over 100 inches of rain since then!

Meanwhile, Los Angeles and other areas in Southern California are running several inches below average. Talk about no rest for the weary!

Credit: National Weather Service Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service
Credit: Western Regional Climate Center

So, what happened?

El Ninos generally give wetter-than-normal conditions to California after the New Year (there is little correlation before January 1st), and this is due to a large area of low pressure setting up in the Eastern Pacific, allowing the jet stream to sag southward into California. We had a wet October and November and a downright stormy December, and while an El Nino pattern did develop after the New Year, there was also a persistent ridge of high pressure over Southern California, pushing the jet stream back north into our region for extended periods of time and giving us relatively warm and wet southwesterly flow in the process. In the graphic below, the negative anomalies correspond to areas of lower pressure and vise versa.

Credit: NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory

“Astronomical winter” is defined as the period from the winter solstice to the vernal (spring) equinox, which is approximately from December 21st to March 20th, with the dates occasionally changing due to one calendar year not being exactly equal to the period of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. However, most people would agree that Hanukkah feels more winter-ish than St. Patrick’s Day, so we’ve come up with the term “meteorological winter” to define winter based on what the weather is like outside.

Meteorological winter is officially defined as December 1st to February 28 for the entire country. We had the wettest meteorological winter on record by far here in Seattle, with 24.54 inches of rain from December to the 28th of February (and 24.63 inches if you count February 29th), besting the record of 22.77 inches set in 1998-1999.

Cliff Mass, one of my atmospheric sciences professors at the University of Washington, defines our “meteorological winter” as the period from October 1st to March 1st, and while this is a fair bit broader than the previous definition, it makes sense, considering that these are the primary months that our storms come through. For this reason, October 1st is said to mark the beginning of the “water year,” and boy oh boy did we have a lot of water this year. From October 1st to March 1st, we had 38.62 inches of rain in Sea-Tac, breaking the previous record of 38.19 (also set in 1998-1999). That’s more rain than Sea-Tac usually receives in an entire year! Seattle has nearly 40 inches as of Tuesday afternoon, and heavy rains and flooding are predicted Wednesday night, with unsettled weather the rest of the week.

My personal definition of meteorological winter is from Veteran’s Day to Valentine’s Day, because it’s nearly impossible to get significant lowland snowstorms here outside of those dates. Compiling statistics for my own “meteorological winter” definition would be extremely time-consuming and not very productive, but I’m willing to bet that 2015-2016 was also the wettest year for the Veteran’s Day to Valentine’s Day time frame.

An interesting thing to note was that although this winter was very wet, we didn’t have a ton of record-breaking rainfall events. Instead, we simply remained in a rainy pattern for the entire winter and had relatively few dry spells.

Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences

Even though we’ve been wet, we’ve also been warmer than normal (though not nearly as warm as we were last year). As such, our snowpack is right around normal. But you can bet your bonnet that our streams and reservoirs are running high and that our soils are saturated. Salmon will have a much easier time getting up the rivers to spawn this autumn, and hopefully we will have less fire danger this summer due to increased soil and crop moisture.

In the meantime, long range forecasts are predicting us to be cooler and wetter for next winter as we head into a La Nina pattern! However, after this winter, I’m not sure whether I should ever believe the Climate Prediction Center’s outlooks again.

Cliff Mass at the 2016 Pacific Northwest Weather Workshop talking about how bad our seasonal precipitation forecasts were this year. Credit: Logan Johnson

Thanks for reading!
Charlie

The Transition of Seasons

Thursday, February 25, 2016
12:17 pm

I apologize for the delay in blog posts and Facebook updates. Yes, I’ve been busy, but moreover, there hasn’t been much weather going on. I’ve had trouble thinking of things to write about, so I’ve started posts and just never finished them. Perhaps one day I will.

Then, it occurred to me. Perhaps I should write a blog about our lack of weather. There is something to be said for nothing happening, especially after having one of the wettest winters on record for the area (and by some measures, the wettest winter of all time). After all, in the words of the Whether Man, “it is more important to know whether there will be weather, whether than what the weather will be.”

The Whether Man from Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth”
Illustrated by Jules Feiffer
Retrieved from annaforrester.wordpress.com

It seems like every year, around November 1st, the heavens open up and our stormy season begins. We cool off dramatically, and by mid-late November, we’ve historically seen our first significant lowland snowstorms. We are at our stormiest by Thanksgiving, and we slowly calm down from there, nevertheless remaining pretty stormy right through January. However, by the time mid-February rolls around, we’ve calmed down significantly, and after Valentine’s Day, it’s much harder to get snow in the lowlands. All of this begs the question: why do we have a storm season, and why does it approximately start and end on these dates?
To understand why we get our storms, you have to understand the mechanisms that form them. Our storms are midlatitude cyclones, and get their energy from north-south temperature differences in the Westerlies. Generally, the larger the temperature difference, the stronger the cyclone. As the graphic below shows, mid-latitude cyclones need, among other things, a meridional temperature difference and some wind shear to get started. Once there is a bit of rotation, a cold and warm front begin to appear, with the cold front eventually catching up to the warm front and forming an occluded front before the storm finally dissipates.
Credit: UC San Diego
The “jet stream”, the band of high-altitude winds in the mid-latitudes, is determined by temperature differences throughout the atmosphere which then result in the pressure gradients that drive the jet stream. The stronger the temperature difference, the stronger the jet stream that feeds energy into the storm. The jet stream is typically at its strongest in the Western Pacific where there is a stark difference in temperatures from Siberia to the north and the warm water of the equatorial Western Pacific to the south. Some of the most intense extratropical storms in the world form in the Northwest Pacific. Thankfully, we don’t have to deal with these, but Alaska does on occasion!

How temperature affects pressure gradients, which in turn affect the strength of the jet stream. The jet stream is the geostrophic wind (parallel to isobars, or lines of constant pressure) around 200-300 mb.
Credit: University of Illinois

During the autumn, the northern hemisphere starts to tilt away from the sun, causing the polar regions to cool off dramatically while the subtropical regions are still relatively warm. This is why November is such a stormy month for us; there is a large temperature difference from north-to-south and thus a strong jet stream that is more often than not pointed directly at the Pacific Northwest. Moreover, some of our biggest storms, such as the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, occur when tropical systems from the Western Pacific actually get sucked up into the westerlies and transition to extratropical storms. As the graph below shows, there are still a fair number of cyclones that occur during the months of November and December in the Western Pacific, but very few occur from January to April.
Credit: UCAR MetEd COMET Program
As we go into December and January, the polar regions continue to cool, but the subtropics cool off as well. By late February, the polar regions are starting to warm dramatically while warming is much more modest in the subtropics, leading to a smaller north-south temperature difference and thus a weaker jet stream, with weaker and less frequent storms affecting us here in the Pacific Northwest. This trend continues throughout the summer, with the smallest north-south change in temperature in the northern Hemisphere occurring around late July/early August. After that, the temperature discrepancies start to pick up, and we start to see progressively more and more powerful storms.

Jet stream in the summer and winter. As you can see, the jet stream is stronger and further south during the winter due to increased north-south temperature gradients, giving stronger storms and heavier precipitation to the West Coast.
Credit:UCAR MetEd COMET Program

Even though we are relatively calm in the spring, many other places in the midlatitudes are actually wetter in the spring than the winter. For example, Oklahoma City’s dry season is from November to February, with precipitation sharply increasing in the spring and decreasing slightly for the summer months. This is because unlike us, Oklahoma City gets the majority of their precipitation from thunderstorms and squalls. These storms have a tough time forming in winter, but once spring comes around, look out!
Credit: NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory
While the north/south temperature gradients are not as strong in the spring, this is when the difference in temperature between the surface and aloft is the highest. When there is a large decrease in temperature with height, the atmosphere is very unstable, and there is a ton of potential energy available for thunderstorm formation. Typically, warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico comes in at low levels, while hot, dry air from the desert southwest comes in at mid-levels, creating an inversion that initially prevents any clouds from forming. However, this inversion acts as a pressure-cooker of sorts, and as the lower atmosphere heats up during the day, the inversion becomes weaker and weaker until it can no longer contain the hot, moist air at the surface. When the inversion finally buckles and the air starts to rise, it rises incredibly fast and violently and to great heights due to the cold air surrounding it and the fact that it is less dense than the surrounding air. 
Our storm season may be coming to an end, but it won’t be long before we’ll be talking about severe springtime thunderstorms. Although not every place is blessed with fascinating weather all the time, you’d be hard-pressed to find a time when there’s no interesting weather anywhere in the world.
Charlie

Snow To Return To The Cascades

Wednesday, February 17, 2016
6:15 pm

It was a bad week for the snow-lovers of the Pacific Northwest. Over the past couple days, we’ve had very moist and relatively mild flow coming into our region from the WSW. The result? Heavy rains on the Olympics and Northern Cascades, with much lighter precipitation in the Seattle area due to rainshadowing by the Olympics. These “atmospheric rivers” are really good for showing how much our topography affects our weather around the region. Take a look at some radar-estimated precipitation totals from the storm and compare them a topographical map of the Pacific Northwest. Notice any similarities?

Credit: National Weather Service
Credit: University of Washington
There’s clearly more precipitation on windward slopes and less on leeward slopes, with 3-4 inches in some places on the windward slopes of the central and northern Washington Cascades and nothing on the eastern slopes. Amazing! You can even see an increase in precipitation due to the Blue Mountains in Northeast Oregon.
One more graphic… look how much topography affects annual rainfall around the state. It’s just another thing that makes forecasting the weather around here so much fun!
Credit: Chris Daly and Mike Halblelb of the Oregon State University PRISM group
Retrieved from University of Washington
You can get 200+ inches of precipitation on the highest peaks of the Olympics, but Sequim, on the northeastern part of the Olympic Peninsula, only gets around 16 inches of rain a year – nearly the same amount as Los Angeles. Heck, Sequim is even home to the “Brittle Prickly Pear” cactus – the only cactus native to Western Washington. You won’t find any of those in the Hoh Rainforest!
The good news for snow-lovers is that more snow is on the way. It’s raining at the passes right now, but snow levels, currently at 6,000 feet, will continue to drop as the week goes on. By noon Thursday, the white stuff should finally be falling again at Snoqualmie Pass.
Valid 04:00 pm PST, Wed 17 Feb 2016
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences
The graphic above shows the “thickness” of the atmosphere between the 1000 and 500 hPa pressure levels. Warm air is less dense, so the higher the thickness, the warmer the air throughout that column. Units are in “dam,” which stands for decameters (tens of meters). You can see how although we have relatively low heights associated with a cooler air mass and lower snow levels offshore, the counterclockwise flow around the low is still pumping relatively warm, moist air into our region. As a result, we are seeing warm temperatures and heavy rain in many regions right now.
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences
However, by tomorrow morning, thicknesses have dropped by nearly 150 meters. 
Valid 10:00 am PST, Thu 18 Feb 2016 – 18hr Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences
Now the graphic everybody cares about: 24-hour snow accumulation.
Valid 04:00 pm PST, Thu 18 Feb 2016 – 24hr Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences
We finally get some snow here, but areas further south get pummeled with the white stuff. The Sierra Nevada gets feet rather than inches. The Sierra Nevada are very tall mountains that rise dramatically from the Central Valley, so they are very efficient at wringing out moisture. If we had the Sierra Nevada and California had the relatively short Cascades, then skiers, farmers, and utility companies here would be in 7th heaven and California would be in a whole lot more trouble than they are now. 
Over the next 24 hours, the focus of the snow shifts north and snow levels plummet below 2,000 feet. 
Valid 04:00 am PST, Sat 20 Feb 2016 – 60hr Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences
Skiing should be fantastic this weekend. Saturday in particular should be spectacular, with snowfall decreasing throughout the day. Another system comes in Sunday afternoon, but once again, this one should bring more snow than rain to the Cascades, at least at all the major passes. 
Hit the slopes this weekend!
Charlie

Everything You Need To Know About Gravitational Waves

Thursday, February 11, 2016
8:12 pm

According to my mom, I memorized the names of “all the moons of Jupiter” thanks to this book.
Retrieved from www.goodreads.com

Although it has been my most enduring, meteorology was not my first foray into the natural sciences. When I was in preschool, I was obsessed with volcanoes and astronomy, two things I still love today. I clearly remember taking a trip to the “Big Island” of Hawaii when I was in kindergarten with my family and throwing a fit when we went to Kilauea and the “hot lava” that was so vividly portrayed in the video cassettes I religiously watched at home was nowhere to be found. Although I don’t remember any of them now, my mom says that I memorized all the moons of Jupiter given in the book above. Seeing as Jupiter has 67 moons, I think she might be exaggerating a bit, but I may have memorized the four Galilean moons (she recalls me memorizing 8 or so).
I may have been a highly touted intellectual science prospect throughout preschool, but those expectations fell flat when I encountered a more strenuous workload in middle school, and you need look no further than my performance in the calculus-based introductory physics series at the University of Washington to see that I’m a hobbyist at heart, not a scientist. Thankfully, scientists came along and developed the internet, so hobbyists like myself can still entertain ourselves by blogging about things we aspire to comprehend.
So, as you can imagine, when I heard the news on Thursday that a team of absurdly smart scientists were claiming to have discovered direct evidence of gravitational waves, waves in the space-time fabric of the universe, from two black holes smashing into each other over a billion light years away, I had to enter the blogosphere and give the internet my two cents on it.
But before I did that, I had to brush up on my knowledge of Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity.

Smart guy!
Credit:  Ferdinand Schmutzer (retrieved from Wikipedia)

We are used to thinking of space and time as independent of each other. We imagine that there are three spatial dimensions that describe our world, and there is time, which just ‘keeps on going’ at the same rate for everybody. Time anchors us. In a crazy world with terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, disease, and reality TV stars storming their way to the Republican nomination, we can all rest easy knowing one thing. At least we all abide by one common clock, right?
Wrong.
In 1905, Einstein was a 26-year-old university graduate who was working in a patent office. He enjoyed producing groundbreaking physics work in his spare time, and in 1905, he produced his theory of special relativity. This theory has two parts. First, it says that the laws of physics are identical throughout the universe for any “inertial” (non-accelerating) observer. Second, it says that the speed of light is the same for all observers. These may seem like commonsense, innocuous statements, but they have profound implications. As you will see, while some things are absolute, such as the speed light, other things are relative based on the observer, such as space and time.

Own graphic, created with Microsoft PowerPoint
Imagine that you are in a vintage race car traveling 70 miles per hour to the east, and your buddy’s jalopy is traveling at 30 mph to the west. In this case, your buddy’s car is traveling towards you at 100 mph. This is because YOUR car is not traveling away from you at all – it is traveling at a lowly 0 mph relative to you. Likewise, from your buddy’s perspective, his car is not moving at all, but your car is moving towards him at 100 mph. At first, this seems like a paradox: how can something be moving at 0 mph and 100 mph at the same time? Of course, it all makes sense when you take who’s driving the car into account. This illustrates the concept of inertial reference frame, where any arbitrary, non-accelerating object can be defined as being stationary while other objects are whizzing all around in every direction. I may think I’m stationary sitting here writing this blog, and I am from my reference frame, but try asking the man on the moon if I’m stationary. Heck, he can only see me for half of the day!
Weird things happen when you travel at speeds close to the speed of light. Say, for example, that I am flying in a spaceship at the speed of light to the east, and my buddy is flying at the speed of light to the west. It would seem, then, that from my inertial reference frame, my buddy is traveling at two times the speed of light away from me. In the graphic below, ‘c’ stands for the speed of light, while ‘2c’ stands for twice the speed of light.

Own graphic, created with Microsoft PowerPoint
However, this is not possible. Due to the theory of special relativity, since we are both non-accelerating objects, the same laws of physics apply for us, and the speed of light is the same for us. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Therefore, my buddy is only traveling the speed of light away from me, not twice the speed of light. How can this be?

Own graphic, created with Microsoft PowerPoint

In the car example, the speed of my car was completely dependent on reference frame. I could’ve been going 0 mph or I could have been going 100 mph. If there was a hitchhiker standing on the side of the roadway, he would have said I was going 70 mph. And as it turns out, time, just like speed, position, and so many other things, is relative.
If I’m traveling at light speed away from my buddy and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, then time is going normally for me, but no time has passed for him. If time was going for him, he would be moving!
And because the speed of light is equal to length divided by time, if time is relative, it turns out that length is too! If time passes more slowly for other objects flying by the observer than the observer himself in his inertial reference frame, then the length of those objects the observer sees must contract in order to satisfy the relationship between time, length, and the speed of light. For example, if I’m flying by a spaceship at 3/5ths the speed of light, for me, the spaceship is only 4/5ths as long as it is in its own reference frame, and for every second that has passed on the spaceship, 1.25 seconds have passed for me. These concepts are called length contraction and time dilation, respectively, and they are not intuitive at all. You can learn more about them here.
There are other consequences of special relativity, a major one being that events that may appear simultaneous to one observer may not appear simultaneous to another observer. Also, weird stuff happens when you are accelerating (i.e. not in an inertial reference frame). It’s all incredibly confusing and counter-intuitive.
But what all of this stuff means is that space and time are not separate entities. They are intrinsically woven together, and we call this entity space-time.That’s right: in our overly chaotic world, space and even time are relative to the observer. Thankfully, these effects only become noticeable when traveling at “relativistic” speeds… i.e., speeds approaching the speed of light. Otherwise, I imagine everyday communication would be quite difficult!
For example, let’s imagine that the aforementioned rockets can go at all speeds. The dashed line here represents the relative speed of one rocket from another (in terms of its velocity divided by the speed of light) if we just take the sum of the parts like we did with the cars. The blue line shows the relative speed if we take special relativity into account, like we did with the rockets. There isn’t much of a difference until after v/c=.1, meaning that the velocity (v) is 1/10th the speed of light. One tenth the speed of light is 66,960,000 miles per hour! So yes, relativity affects us all, but the effects are so small that it is impossible for us to notice them. Still it’s fascinating to know that any movement has an effect on time and length from your reference frame.

Credit: physics.stackexchange.com/

Whew! If you made it through that, then you’ll have no problem getting through the rest of this blog.
Obviously, 1905 was a good year for Einstein. In addition to his theory of special relativity, he published revolutionary papers on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and mass-energy equivalence (E=mc2). However, his best work was yet to come.
Einstein liked his theory of special relativity, but he wasn’t content with it. Special relativity was only concerned with inertial reference frames, and Einstein wanted to make a theory that was compatible with all reference frames. In other words, he sought to include acceleration into his theory. He began his quest for a new, more generalized theory in 1907, and after eight years of blood, sweat, and tears, he published his theory of general relativity, a theory which has served as one of the pillars of modern physics ever since.

The mass of the Earth bending space-time around it, creating gravity
Retrieved from Wikipedia

In his law of universal gravitation, Isaac Newton stated that any two objects in the universe attract each other, and that attraction is due to the intrinsic mass of the objects. He didn’t know why they attracted each other, but he just knew that they did, and that the more massive the object and the closer the object was to neighboring objects, the stronger the attraction was.
When coming up with his theory of general relativity, Einstein actually apologized to Newton in his notebook, writing “Newton, forgive me. You found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought and creative power.” In his theory, Einstein finally had an explanation for why gravity existed. In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, gravity is not simply an innate force between two objects. Instead, gravity is a consequence of the influence of mass on space-time. Mass, he proposed, curves space-time, and this curvature is felt as the “force” of gravity.
Take a look at the diagram of the Earth above. Due to its mass, it bends space-time, with the most bend occurring closest to the Earth. Now, imagine that you have a ball rolling on the space-time surface. It will roll towards the Earth, and will roll fastest when it is closest to the Earth, where the slope of space-time – and therefore, the force of gravity – is the steepest/strongest. Of course, this ball, which has mass, will also bend space-time. Technically, this bend extends throughout the entire universe, but the effect of the Earth’s mass on the curvature of space-time is negligible once you get out of our solar system, so it’s really negligible in galaxies billions of light-years away.

Credit: pics-about-space.com

The fact that mass bends space-time has some important implications, with two of the most important being the theorized existence of black holes and gravitational waves. Black holes are regions where the curvature in space-time, and by association, the gravitational force, is so drastic that nothing, not even light, can escape past a certain point, known as the event horizon. In fact, all the mass of the black hole is located at the “singularity,” which has no volume, infinite density, and infinite space-time curvature. Black holes had been theorized and indirectly observed but never observed directly until September 2015. After a lengthy, arduous process of research and verification, these findings were announced to the world on Thursday, February 11, 2016.
However, the bigger story has been how we obtained direct evidence of the existence of black holes. And we did that by the first ever direct observation of gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves produced by two black holes orbiting each other
Credit: NASA (retrieved from www.space.com)

Gravitational waves are undulations in space-time that propagate as waves from a given source. Although mass curves space-time, the curve stays centered on that specific mass. With gravitational waves, these curves propagate throughout the universe, far away from the center of mass from which they are originating.

Credit: Malter
Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Gravitational waves are sinusoidal, meaning they oscillate smoothly according to the y-coordinate of a rhythmic trace of a circle. These waves, called “sine” waves, are everywhere. Light waves, sound waves, and even water waves are sinusoidal. For example, the “A” below is a sine wave.

Hear the sound of this wave here
Credit: University of Minnesota

Music is made of a whole bunch of sine waves, and although it doesn’t look as neat, it sounds a lot better. Here is a “waveform analysis” I made of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher.”

Created with Sigview Spectrum Analyzer

Gravitational waves, by bending space and time, actually move stuff in very specific patterns. I found a handy collection of animated gifs online at Universe Today, but these were all originally retrieved from Einstein Online, a fantastic resource for laypeople who want to learn about relativity and all things Einstein. I heavily used Einstein Online when writing this blog!

Let’s imagine that we have a bunch of red dots laid out in a circular fashion. A gravitational wave, when passing perpendicular to this circle of dots (into the screen), would cause them to stretch and contract in a rhythmic fashion. Check it out!

Insane, right? And remember, it’s stretching and contracting time, too.
Now, let’s extend this to the third dimension. Instead of having one circle, we’ll stack a whole bunch of them together to make a cylinder. Also, we’ll connect the dots with some imaginary blue lines just so it is easier to see how the wave propagates through the cylinder.

Here is the view of the wave coming perpendicular to the ends of the cylinder. Trippy!

And here’s a side view. You can really see the sinusoidal nature of the wave.

There are many different types of gravitational waves. The one above is a “linearly polarized” gravity wave. There are other polarizations, such as circular and elliptical polarization, and the polarization has to do with the electromagnetic nature of the wave. Additionally, these waves occur at a vast variety of frequencies corresponding to the objects that produced the waves and how far the waves have traveled. 
Credit: LIGO Scientific Collaboration
So, gravitational waves move temporarily distort time and space for certain regions before they continue their journey onward throughout the rest of the universe. But how the heck do we measure these things?
I hope nobody was in that lookout!
Credit: Defense Research and Development Canada
As we saw, the gravitational waves moving through something distort its shape. However, there are lots of waves that can move through things and distort their shapes. Seismic waves distort the shape of the ground. Water waves distort the shape of the water. Shock waves, such as the one you see emanating from the explosion above, can set off car alarms, bring down buildings, and scare the living crap out of your dog. Therefore, how did these scientists deduce that the waves they observed were of the gravitational variety?
The LIGO Control Room in Hanford, Washington
Credit: Tobin Fricke
Enter LIGO, which stands for the “Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.” LIGO is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation and draws scientists from all around the world. It was originally founded in 1992 by a group of scientists from MIT and Caltech, and began operations in 2002. Between 2002 and 2010, it failed to discover any gravitational waves, and was subsequently shut down for enhancements, finally coming back online in February of 2015.
Ligo Hanford (left) and Ligo Livingston (right)
Credit: LIGO Scientific Collaboration
LIGO consists of two giant L-shaped observatories, one in Hanford, Washington, and one in Livingston, Louisiana, with each “arm” being 4 kilometers long. As the LIGO acronym suggests, these observatories are “Laser Interferometers,” meaning they split a laser beam and see how the two laser beams interfere with each other. The beams are calibrated so that, under normal conditions, there will be perfect “destructive interference,” which is where the light beams (which are sine waves) are perfectly opposite each other so that adding them together creates a straight line and thus a complete absence of light.
LIGO interferometer design. Credit: LIGO Scientific Collaboration
When a gravitational wave comes, space-time is distorted, and as such, the arms of the observatory lengthen and contract rhythmically, with one arm lengthening as the other contracts and vice versa. Due to this changing length, the laser beams no longer perfectly cancel each other out, and light shines through.
The change in arm length is on the small side – typical changes are on the order of 1/10,000th the width of a proton! Incredibly, the interferometers are sensitive enough to measure this change. I don’t know how they do it. To determine whether the readings were due to gravitational waves and not – say – a 9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, scientists are on the lookout for specific patterns that suggest the passing of a gravitational wave. Here are their exact measurements from the gravitational wave everybody is talking about.
Credit: Abbott et al.  (2016)
Gravitational waves are made by extremely violent events in the universe, and these gravitational waves were theorized to have been created by the collision of two black holes, one 36 times the mass of the sun and the other 29 times as massive. They circled and approached each other at half the speed of light and eventually collided to make a single black hole 62 times as massive as the sun. Three solar masses were transformed into energy (remember E=mc2?), and 50 times as much power as the output of all stars in the universe was sent radiating into the space at the speed of light. 
1.3 billion years later, on September 14, 2015, scientists found the specific pattern they were looking for, and the fact that it occurred at both the Hanford and Livingston observatories at almost exactly the same time proved that it was not simply a local disturbance. The signal only lasted for 20 milliseconds and only moved the LIGO mirrors four thousandths of the diameter of a proton, but they had finally captured direct evidence of both black holes and gravitational waves. Although gravitational waves are not sound waves, the frequency of these waves is a frequency that our ear can detect, so by converting the gravitational waves to sound waves, we can hear the sounds of these two black holes colliding. Listen to them here
I’m not an astrophysicist, but what from what I’ve read, the discovery of these waves is one of the most important astronomical discoveries of all-time. According to Abhay Ashtekar, a physics theorist at Penn State, “it’s really comparable only to Galileo taking up the telescope and looking at the planets. Our understanding of the heavens changed dramatically.” I think a good comparison is to the discovery of radio waves 130 years ago by Heinrich Hertz. Since then, radio waves have completely changed our way of life. 
So far, the vast majority of our observations of the universe have come from electromagnetic radiation. Radio waves, infrared waves, visible light, x-rays, gamma rays… you get the idea. However, not everything in the universe emits electromagnetic radiation. Black holes don’t… that’s why they are called black holes! We would be able to see dark matter and dark energy. But that’s not what I’m most excited about.
Credit: NASA
According to the big bang theory, the very early universe was opaque to electromagnetic radiation, and we cannot see further back than 380,000 years after the big bang. However, it was not opaque to gravitational waves, meaning that if we get a clear enough view, we should actually be able to see the big bang itself. We’ll go all the way back to the very beginning of time: the “singularity,” where all of the matter in the universe was contained in an infinitely small, infinitely dense, and unimaginably hot point. Or we’ll discover that the Big Bang didn’t happen at all. However, the existence of gravitational waves adds credence to the big bang theory.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Einstein once said. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” I can only imagine what we’ll discover next!
Bibliography:
Abbott, B. P. et al. (2016). Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger. Physics Review Letters, 116(061102). Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.061102

Adams, K. S. (n.d.). High Energy Groove: X-Ray Binary. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from http://heasarc.nasa.gov/docs/xte/outreach/HEG/bhm/black_hole_mass.html

Albert Einstein. (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein

Choi, C. Q. (2014, October 24). Einstein’s Gravity Waves Could Be Found with New Method. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from http://www.space.com/27510-gravitational-wave-detection-method.html

Elementary Einstein. (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://www.einstein-online.info/elementary

Fowler, M. (n.d.). Special Relativity: What Time is it? Retrieved February 11, 2016, from http://galileoandeinstein.physics.virginia.edu/lectures/srelwhat.html

General Relativity. (2016, February 12). Retrieved February 12, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_relativity

LIGO. (2016, February 13). Retrieved February 13, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LIGO

Nave, C. R. (n.d.). Time Dilation/Length Contraction. Retrieved February 11, 2016, from http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/relativ/tdil.html

Norton, J. D. (2015, January 14). Special Relativity Basics – Relativity of Simutaneity. Retrieved February 11, 2016, from http://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/teaching/HPS_0410/chapters/Special_relativity_rel_sim/

Polarization (Waves). (2016, February 13). Retrieved February 13, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polarization_(waves)

Radford, T. (2016, February 11). Gravitational waves: Breakthrough discovery after a century of expectation. Retrieved February 11, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/11/gravitational-waves-discovery-hailed-as-breakthrough-of-the-century

Rogness, J. (n.d.). Trigonometry in Nature – Sinusoidal Waves as Sound. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from http://www.math.umn.edu/~rogness/math1155/soundwaves/

Special Relativity. (2016, February 2). Retrieved February 11, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_relativity

Spotlights on relativity. (2016). Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://www.einstein-online.info/spotlights

Timeline of the Universe. (2012, December 21). Retrieved February 13, 2016, from http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/media/060915/index.html

Did El Niño Come? It Depends Who You Ask.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016
11:14 am
Earlier this week, a massive ridge of high pressure settled over the West Coast, giving us clear skies, light winds, and extremely warm temperatures, especially if you got above the humongous inversion that was insulating many lowland regions from the extreme warmth. Many places were extraordinarily warm; Quillayute on the coast hit 70 degrees on Monday and 73 on Tuesday (their highest average summertime high is 69), and on Monday at Mt. Rainier, Paradise Ranger Station at 5,400 feet and Camp Muir at 10,110 feet hit 71 and 48 degrees, respectively. North Bend on the Oregon Coast hit 82 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded on the Oregon Coast in February, and temperatures at the 850 hPa level of the atmosphere (around a mile above sea level) around our area were the highest on record for any January, February, or March day on record. That’s impressive.
All things considered, this was a very short stretch of summer-like weather, but nevertheless, many media outlets, particularly ones in Southern California, immediately published stories seemingly questioning the legitimacy of our current “Godzilla” El Niño. Are these suspicions well-founded, or is it just a bunch of bunkum and balderdash?
Credit: BuzzFeed
Credit: The Washington Post
Like so many other things in life, it depends who you ask. If you ask somebody from Los Angeles, particularly somebody who lived through the 1997-1998 El Niño, they may say that El Niño never came and that all of the forecasters were completely wrong. October, November, and December were all drier than normal for most regions of SoCal, and January was only slightly wetter than normal for some areas. February 1998 broke all-time monthly precipitation records throughout the region, and that does not look likely this year for anywhere on the West Coast.
Meanwhile, Northern California has gotten plenty of precipitation, and the Sierra and Intermountain West have a healthy snowpack. Some reservoirs are now above average for this time of the year, which is truly amazing considering all the talk about California being in their most significant drought in the past 1200 years. On the flipside, seasonal predictions were going for drier and much warmer than normal conditions in the Pacific Northwest, and that simply hasn’t happened.
Credit: Climate Prediction Center
This is what the Climate Prediction Center was predicting for the December/January/February period for the U.S. Drier and warmer north, and wetter south. Looking at the past three months, this hasn’t necessarily been the case, at least for the Western U.S.
Credit: Western Regional Climate Center
Credit: Western Regional Climate Center

The temperature forecast wasn’t half bad, but the precipitation forecast was way off.

However, temperature and precipitation only tell part of the story. Let’s take a look at what’s going on in the upper atmosphere, as that may be a better indicator of whether this El Niño has significantly influenced our weather this winter. As the graphic below shows, El Niño winters often have a large low pressure anomaly in the Northeastern Pacific from January to March. According to scholars far more learned than I, there is no correlation between the existence of an El Niño and temperature/precipitation on the West Coast before January 1st.

Credit: NOAA
Retrieved from Scott Sistek’s Weather Blog

However, if we look at the 500 hPa height anomaly from October-December of 1982 and 1997 (the other super big El Niño winters), you can see a clear area of low pressure in the Northeastern Pacific, suggesting that the typical wintertime El Niño circulation may set up earlier during very strong El Niño years. That same area of low pressure does not appear in 2015. Two years is an awfully small sample size, but it’s still something to consider.

Credit: NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory
Credit: NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory

However, since January 1st, the precipitation and temperature distributions across the West have been much more in line with what we would expect during an El Niño year.

Credit: Western Regional Climate Center
Credit: Western Regional Climate Center

The bulk of the precipitation has clearly moved southward into Northern California, so although it didn’t make it all the way to Baja California like the Climate Prediction Center was forecasting, it at least made it into the Sunshine State. The West Coast and northern tier of the country have been warmer than normal, just like the CPC forecast.

Take a look at the 500mb heights over the Eastern Pacific for January 2016. Classic El Niño circulation. The height anomalies this past January look very similar to those from the past mega El Niños of 1982-1983 and 1997-1998.

Credit: NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory
Credit: NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory
Bottom line: since January 1st, we have, for the most part, been in a textbook El Niño pattern. There have been some exceptions, such as the incredible warmth we saw earlier this week, but they have been few and far between. Our massive December snowpack is now more-or-less average, while snowpack is still well-above normal in many places in California and Nevada.

Credit: USDA National Water and Climate Center

Take a look at Folsom Lake in Northern California- it has skyrocketed to above-normal levels!

Credit: California Data Exchange Center

Why hasn’t Southern California gotten pummeled by rain? Some climate scientists, such as Daniel Swain of Stanford University, say that the warm air above the warm water in the tropical Pacific moved further north than expected, causing the storm track to bypass southern California. Others, like Kevin Trenberth, a scientist for the National Corporation for Atmospheric Research, say that the differences in air temperatures along the equator with this El Niño are much less than previous mega El Niños and that this El Niño is being interfered with by activity in the Indian OceanWhatever the reason, it looks highly unlikely that Southern California will get a significant amount of precipitation for the remainder of this winter.

Given the lack of rain in some areas that have been rainy with similarly strong El Niños, we’ll see if a significant Californian population is left with the impression that El Niño “never came.” If so, it shows that there is still a giant disconnect between the scientific community and the average person, and that scientists need to be more effective in communicating the uncertainties and intricacies of the climate system to the public.

Thanks for reading!
Charlie

Major Inversion

Tuesday, February 9, 2016
11:37 am
Right now, we have a pretty impressive inversion over our region. This was something I expected, and honestly, I was surprised that it was not stronger yesterday. It will weaken as the day goes on and the sun heats up the surface, but right now, it is quite striking. 
Take a look at the temperature soundings from Sand Point below. You can see that temperatures approach 20 degrees Centigrade (68 degrees Fahrenheit!) a kilometer above the surface, but down at sea level, temperatures are 6 degrees Centigrade or so – low 40s Fahrenheit.
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences

Inversions trap moisture and pollutants near the surface, and often result in fog. We’ve seen pretty widespread fog this morning, but it is in the process of burning off.

11:30 am PST, Tue 09 Feb 2016
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences
11:30 am PSDT, Tue 09 Feb 2016
KOMO Columbia Tower Cam
Credit:KOMO News
Temperatures have been exceptionally warm aloft (Paradise was in the low 70s yesterday!) and they will be once again today. In fact, temperatures aloft are warmer now than our summertime averages. Quillayute hit 70 yesterday… their maximum average summer high is 69. We can get some nice weather during the winter, but it’s a truly rare occasion when the coast and areas above 5,400 feet are hitting 70 degrees in early February.
Paradise Ranger Station.
Credit: National Park Service
Johnson Ridge Observatory
Credit: US Forest Service
Charlie

The Death Ridge!

Monday, February 8, 2016
4:59 p.m.

Valid 10:00 am PST, Mon 08 Feb 2016 – 6hr Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences
We’ve seen our fair share of suffixes and nicknames for atmospheric and oceanic phenomena of all types these past two years. We had “The Blob,” a simple but very accurate designation given to a massive pool of warm water in the Northeast Pacific. We’re in the midst of the “Godzilla El Nino,” an El Nino truly monstrous in size and intensity. Just this past month, we had Snowzilla/Snowmageddon/Winter Storm Jonas, a blizzard that paralyzed the eastern third of the country and dumped feet of snow across some of the largest cities in the country.
For the first half of this week, an incredibly strong ridge of high pressure will set up shop over the Western U.S., killing any chance of exciting weather over thousands of miles for the next several days. The name for this beast?
The Death Ridge!
Before I go any further, let me give you some meteorology 101 and explain what a ridge is. A ridge is simply an area of high pressure that extends into the upper levels of the atmosphere. Ridges, especially strong ones, push the jet stream or storm track northward. Similarly, troughs are areas of low pressure in the upper atmosphere, and they cause the jet stream to sag southward. 

Credit: University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

What makes this ridge special is simply how big it is. Many of the ridges that affect us in the winter, especially those between storm systems, are very weak and only result in a temporary decrease in shower activity in some areas. This ridge will prevent any weather system off the Pacific from coming even remotely close to our neck of the woods, while making snow levels skyrocket to well over 13,000 feet in the process. Camp Muir, at 10,110 feet on Mt. Rainier, has been hovering between 44 and 48 degrees since 9 am this morning, and their most recent measurement (5 pm) was their coolest. Simply incredible. 

Still don’t fully grasp how strong this ridge is? Look at the satellite image below.

Image taken ~ 4pm PST from NASA’s AQUA Satellite
Credit: NASA Worldview

Folks, this is early February during an El Nino year. The West Coast has no business being this calm. There are hardly any clouds in the sky, and the few clouds you see are fog due to local inversions from – you guessed it – this massive ridge of high pressure. Honestly, it’s kinda spooky.

The clear skies give us a great view of the snow lying on the ground, and as the picture below shows, we are at or above normal in most locations.

Credit: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Winds aloft are very light as well. Since 1 pm today, Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier has not reported a gust over 5 mph. On Friday, they gusted to 118! I guess you could say it is “dead calm” up there.

Tomorrow will be similarly spectacular, and although clouds and a few showers may move in on Wednesday,  highs should still reach into the mid-upper 50s. The rest of the week looks unsettled at times but we do not look stormy by any means. The days are getting longer, football season is done, and spring isn’t too far around the corner.

Charlie

One More Storm To Get Through, Then Spring!

Tuesday, February 4, 2016
4:25 pm

A dreary afternoon at Cannon Beach, OR. Credit: Surflook Surf Cams

Today was one of the grayer days I have witnessed in my 23 years upon this Earth. The skies were gray, the lake looked gray… heck, even my countenance looked gray. It wasn’t sunny enough brighten my mood, but it wasn’t stormy enough to keep me interested. It was just one of “those days.”

Thankfully, “those days” are over, at least for the foreseeable future. We’ve got a relatively potent storm headed our way tomorrow, and after that, we get our first taste of spring as a MASSIVE ridge of high pressure settles directly over our area.

Tonight, clouds will increase, and we won’t have much in the way of precipitation until tomorrow. The picture below shows a pretty solid swath of precipitation off our coast at 7 am, but the I-5 corridor should remain relatively dry until the afternoon, as this batch of rain will be slow to progress eastward. Overall, expect around 1 inch of rain on the coast, 0.5 inches here in the lowlands, and 1-2 inches in the mountains, with the highest amounts on the southwestern slopes of the Olympics.

Valid 07:00 am PST, Fri 05 Feb 2016 – 27hr Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences

This front will deliver a pretty good blow to Western Whatcom County and the San Juan Islands, where a high wind warning is in place for gusts up to 60 miles per hour. There are wind advisories further south in Skagit and Island Counties as well as the Coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for gusts up to 50 mph. Winds gusts should stay below 40 in the Puget Sound lowlands. It won’t be a blowdown by any stretch of the imagination, but there will be enough wind around to keep things interesting.

Credit: National Weather Service – Seattle Office

Snow levels will be high – over 5,000 feet – so this won’t be a big snowmaker for the mountains. However, the Cascades could pick up a half foot or so of snow Friday night into Saturday morning as the front moves on through and cooler air with post-frontal showers move on in.

We calm down on Sunday and stay that way for a while, as one of the strongest ridges I can ever remember seeing for this time of year sets up camp right over our area and stays there through the first half of next week. Just take a look at the picture below! You don’t have to be a meteorologist to know that that is one helluva big ridge.

Valid 10:00 am PST, Mon 08 Feb 2016 – 102hr Fcst
Credit: University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences

This ridge could still give us some areas of pesky morning fog in the South Sound, but overall, it will give us much warmer lowland temperatures than the ridge that settled over our area in early January. Freezing levels will soar to over 11,000 feet, daytime highs could make it into the 60s, and for the first time in several months, it will definitely feel like spring.

Charlie

Global Warming: Too Little Action, Too Much Reaction

Wednesday, January 20, 2016
12:24 pm

Charles Dudley Warner once said that “everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” That time has come and passed, as we now have some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world running millions of lines of code and assimilating terabytes of data to make multiple forecasts each day. We have satellite imagery, radiosondes, surface stations, radars, and everything in between. By doing all of this, we have created forecasts that both help people plan their day and safeguard lives and property. We love to talk about the weather, and we love to do stuff about it too.

Alas, the same is not true for climate. We talk about climate even more than weather, and you need to look no further than the 2016 presidential campaign to notice this. I have not heard one mention of Hurricane Patricia, the 200 mph mutant cyclone that stormed into the Mexican Coast this past October, but I’ve heard plenty of talk about rising sea levels, increasing severe weather events, and linkages between climate change and the devastating civil war in Syria (which, by the way, is not a completely absurd connection). To be fair, we do a lot of research on climate, but that’s not what we need to be doing. We need to be decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions. On that front, we haven’t done much at all.

Credit: International Business Times

Interestingly enough, our carbon dioxide emissions have slightly decreased over the past several years, and that is because of fracking, a new method of extracting methane by fracturing shale underground and releasing methane in the process. While fracking may seem like a gift from heaven because it is a domestic energy source that produces a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, some of that methane escapes and is not captured. Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and many scientists believe that because of this additional methane escape, fracking is actually a greater contributor to global warming than coal.

But back to our inaction on climate change. For all of the doomsday rhetoric from newspaper headlines, environmental groups, and uninformed politicians, we haven’t gotten our act together and made any serious progress on the issue. There are several reasons why, but they all come back to one main reason.

As a whole, we would rather contribute to climate change than change our way of life.

If we really wanted to curb climate change, we’d have fewer kids. If we really wanted to curb climate change, we’d all take mass transit instead of driving hybrid cars. If we really wanted to curb climate change, climatologists, who should be setting an example for the rest of the world, would have Skype sessions instead of flying halfway around the world to climate conferences.

We’d build hydroelectric dams, and accept that some ecosystems would incur significant damages. We’d invest in wind, and we’d definitely invest in solar. We’d build nuclear power plants, and work to control nuclear waste and prevent meltdowns. Personally, I find it mind-boggling that often times, those who exaggerate global warming the most are also the most opposed to nuclear power. At this point, renewable energy sources alone do not even come close to providing the amount of energy we need to sustain our current lifestyles.

In other words, we talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk. So how do we go about fixing our apathy on fixing climate change?

First, we need to be more realistic with the American populace about the dangers of climate change. This is particularly true for people with organizations with a lot of public influence. In my opinion, climate change will be the most pressing issue for the world in the 21st century and beyond because it will affect every inhabitant of this planet to a pretty significant extent. Most climate models have the average temperature of the Earth rising anywhere from 3-12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century, with variations due to different amounts of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. This will have tremendous consequences for many ecosystems across the planet and will force humankind to adapt to a new environment. Heat waves will become more common and more severe, and while greater uncertainty exists with precipitation, droughts and floods could become more severe as well. Tropical cyclones may become more intense. One thing is for sure: the sea level will rise, potentially inundating low-lying areas if they do not adapt. At this point, sea-level rises are expected to be 1-3 feet by 2100.

Second, and this goes hand in hand with my first proposition, we need to end our hyperbolic, alarmist climate statements and our “skepticism” and/or outright denial of a universally accepted and empirically verified scientific theory. Although the future that I just cast sounds very alarming, the amount of exaggeration and misinformation circulating throughout politics and popular culture is astounding. Moreover, much of this rhetoric is spread by sources we would think to be somewhat reliable.

Good intentions, bad science. Credit: Nick Solari

I like Bernie Sanders, and I truly feel like he is one of the few “good guys” in politics. However, I must admit, while making combating climate change a central tenet of his campaign, he has resorted to incorrect and exaggerated claims to push his agenda and is doing a disservice to the American people in the process. He also seems to claim on his website that the reason we haven’t stopped global warming isn’t because the vast majority of people are doing their part, it is because of billionaires who are responsible for preventing climate change legislation. We should be less focused with blaming other people and more focused on decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions, because the vast majority of people are NOT making enough of an effort to do this… myself included.  

On the other hand, most of the Republican candidates are either apathetic about global warming or deny it altogether. None of them are even remotely committed to taking drastic action, which is what needs to be done. If combating climate change is a priority for you, don’t vote for any of the Republicans running in the general election.

However, it’s not just our politicians. It’s also the media. Take a look at some headlines I found that were published in the last 24 hours.

Credit: Irish Times

Credit: UK Independent
Credit: UK Express
Credit: The Frisky

The thing is, most of these articles cite some scientist, but the writers twist his/her words so they can write a straightforward article that will get a lot of views. Common examples include scientists citing one study that shows that there may be a connection between an increased possibility of winter storms and global warming, and then news media outlets blaming the storm solely on global warming. Other headlines use hyperbole, like the one from the UK Independent. My personal favorite here is the satirical piece about everybody’s favorite groundhog, as it perfectly illustrates how the media has a tendency to blame one event on global warming.

Watts Up With That

Fortunately, there aren’t too many scientists who take part in the hyperbole/skepticism of global warming. Unfortunately, the ones that do gain a lot of media attention. Watts Up With That, a site that claims to be the world’s most viewed on global warming and climate change, is dedicated to selecting and twisting scientific information in an attempt to disprove the theory of global warming. And let’s not forget about Dick Lindzen, the MIT atmospheric scientist who did groundbreaking work in atmospheric dynamics but still denies global warming (and the fact that smoking causes cancer). The majority of scientists believe that the effects of climate change are subtle at this point, but that the Earth’s climate will be very different 100 years from now.

Credit: IPCC 5th Assessment Report

And then there are those environmentalists who really exaggerate the facts to push their agenda. Much of the science section of 350.org is bogus. For example, they say scientists warn that sea levels could rise as much as several meters this century, when the scientific consensus as well as the most recent and sophisticated climate models with the most aggressive carbon emission scenario (RCP 8.5) have it rising a meter at most. Greenpeace and The Sierra Club are a little better.

I apologize for being so inflammatory, but the way some politicians, the media, environmentalists, and even scientists approach climate change is unacceptable. The basic science is settled, and with a situation as serious as global warming, people deserve to know the truth.

_________________________________________________________

So, now that I’ve finished ranting, what actions should we take to mitigate global warming?

There are many, many ways we can reduce our carbon footprint. Let’s start with some basic ones. This is just a partial list.

Conserve: This is fairly straightforward. Turn down the thermostat and wear a giant coat. Take “sailor showers,” and if you have the money, invest in insulating your home. Sometimes, it’s just as simple as turning off a light you aren’t using, or replacing your incandescent bulbs with fluorescent or LED ones. Stop watching TV and go play outside (but still read my blog). In all cases, our climate and your wallet will thank you. I do all of these things pretty regularly, but I tend to listen to music through a power-hungry speaker system.

Don’t Drive Everywhere: Again, fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, Seattle’s public transportation system leaves a lot to be desired, but our light rail system is becoming more expansive. Seattle is relatively bike-friendly compared to other major cities as well, although a lot more work could be done on that front as well. If I were mayor, I would make public transportation free so that people would be more encouraged to use it. I’d add that air travel also produces tons (literally) of carbon dioxide per passenger, so if you want to reduce your footprint, skipping that trip to Bali is a good place to start.

Buy Used: Manufacturing takes resources – you have to mine the minerals used in the manufacturing process, synthesize them into usable compounds for the appropriate manufacturing facility, make the product, advertise the product, ship the product, etc. If you buy something used on Craigslist or at your local thrift store, you save money and limit waste products.

Get Involved: Write your legislator to tell them that you want them to take action on climate change in some specific way, and if they don’t do it, you’ll tell all your friends to not vote for them for reelection. It works, trust me. Educate people on the science of climate change without resorting to alarmist claims… it’s scary enough as-is. Call out people and organizations that hype, are skeptical of, or deny climate change altogether. Start organizations, make petitions, go the whole nine yards. Just don’t be a hypocrite when you do it.

In my opinion, these sacrifices are worth it. They require relatively little effort, don’t affect your life in any major way, and keep money in the bank. Here are some more that are even more effective, but that many people might not be willing to do.

Don’t Have Kids: Or at least don’t have very many. This is a big one. If we had one billion people on this planet, we wouldn’t be talking about global warming – at least not the type of warming we are seeing right now. The best way to reduce a carbon footprint is to not have a footprint in the first place. Achieving zero or negative population growth in industrialized would be very effective for reducing carbon emissions. I do not know what the social and economic repercussions of this would be, but they would probably be significant. This would be an interesting research topic and is definitely something that should be studied more.

Become A Vegetarian: This may be hard for some people. I was a pescetarian (seafood-eater) for a while, but after a year, I broke down and went on a meat binge. Still, I may resume being a pescetarian. It is cheaper, much more environmentally friendly, and more humane. The fewer animals you kill, the better.

Additionally, there are things that politicians, the media, and people with a little more authority can do.

Stop The Alarmism/Denial: Global warming is a serious issue, and it is imperative that those who act on behalf of the public and/or disseminate information to the public do so in an accurate manner. I’m not saying that the government shouldn’t censor free speech. However, I am saying that there is a moral obligation of those in power to put the health of our planet and people over their profits.

End Subsides for Fossil Fuels: We need to invest heavily in clean, renewable energy and nuclear power if we wish to reduce our carbon footprint without changing our lifestyles. Clean energy, not coal and oil, should be subsidized by the government.

Create a Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax: We have failed on combating climate change because of the “tragedy of the commons;” one person’s contributions to global warming are negligible and don’t affect them personally, so why would they want to change their lifestyle? Of course, when everybody thinks like this, problems arise. The best way to discourage people from contributing to global warming is to have it affect them personally, and the best way to do that is to institute a carbon tax. Nobody likes taxes, so in exchange for this added tax, we could lower other taxes (ex: sales tax). Depressingly enough, a petition for just, I-732, that got hundreds of thousands of signatures, but has been opposed by both Republicans and Democrats. Remember what I said about contacting your legislator? This would be a great time to do it. You can learn more about it/contact your legislator here and also read Cliff Mass’ excellent blog post on the issue.

I could blog until the proverbial cows came home about this issue. We talk too much, and do too little, and our efforts tend to be halfhearted at best. In the words of Yoda…

Thanks for reading!
Charlie

2015: The Warmest Year On Record

Thursday, January 28, 2016 
1:44 pm
Credit: NOAA National Center for Environmental Information
Retrieved from www.resilientdesign.org
2015 was destined to be the warmest year on record. In terms of ocean temperatures, we had one of the strongest El Niños on record brewing in the Tropical Pacific, a mighty “Blob” of warm water in the Northeast Pacific, and abundant warm water throughout the Indian Ocean. We’ll see what the global warming skeptics have to say now, especially since of the past 5 years, 4 have been the warmest on record. That’s not natural variability.
As the graphic above shows, the other warm years were 2005 (5th warmest) and 1998 (6th warmest). The El Niño of 1997-1998 was a very strong one as well, and in many respects, even stronger than our current one. Although that El Niño did not have the added heat contribution from the Blob, the decrease in upwelling in the Eastern Tropical Pacific warmed ocean temperatures far above their normal levels, which in turn influenced atmospheric temperatures.
The picture below shows the temperature percentiles over the globe for the past year. Notice how many places are “much warmer than average” or “record warmest,” with the “record warmest” places being the Tropical Pacific, the Northeast Pacific off the coast of North America, and the Indian Ocean.
Credit: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information
Now, take a look at this SST anomaly animated gif I compiled. This shows the recorded SST over the world’s oceans for the past year starting at 1/25/2016 and going to 1/23/2016. It’s not a perfect representation of 2015 (a month late) but it shows the general idea. There’s a lot of really warm water in those aforementioned places, especially the Tropical and Northeastern Pacific.
Credit: NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory Map Room
Just for fun, here are the actual sea-surface temperatures of the same time frame.

Credit: NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory Map Room

Bathtub temperatures in the Western Tropical Pacific and Northern Indian Ocean!

As previously mentioned, during the 1997-1998 El Niño, 1998 was hotter than 2016. 2015 shattered previous temperature records, but will 2016 be even warmer? It’s hard to tell, but with a dead Blob, I think 2015 will hold its title for at least a couple years. But global warming is very real. If you are scared by this year, you don’t want to know what mankind will be dealing with two centuries from now if we continue business as usual (scenario 8.5).

Credit: Environmental Protection Agency

Conserve whenever possible!

Charlie