Archive for 2011 January

Cold this winter? Take another look at the Arctic Paradox

As another huge storm turns south towards the Midwest, some say that the cold winter can be explained by the Arctic Paradox, which links a natural phenomenon (the Arctic Oscillation) to a man-made phenomenon (diminishing ice in the Arctic), which combines to let polar winds escape southward.

First question: Is ice in the Arctic really diminishing? 

This chart, from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, says yes: 

How does this link up with existing climatological patterns? Climate Central explains

The atmospheric circulation in question is the same weather pattern that contributed to the post-Christmas blizzard in the northeastern U.S., and the extreme cold and snow that gripped much of Europe during December. Known as the Arctic Oscillation, this pattern is a large-scale variation in surface air pressure between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes. When the Arctic Oscillation is in a strongly negative mode, which has been the case recently, air pressures are higher than average in the Arctic and lower than average in the mid-latitudes. This sets up opposing temperature patterns, with a greater likelihood that cold air will spill out of the Arctic and into North America and Europe. 

Scientists refer to weather patterns featuring an abnormally mild Arctic and an unusually cold U.S. and Europe as the "Warm Arctic/Cold Continents Pattern" or an "Arctic Paradox," and it is the subject of ongoing research. 

It's still not fully clear to yours truly. But he appreciates new descriptive metaphors, when they come along. Here's one from a recent NY Times story that likened the declining pressure differential between the polar north and the northern hemisphere to a weakening fence, no longer able to restrain the masses of cold air from the arctic from escaping southward.

I got it! I think… 

Update: Susan Orlean, the wonderful New Yorker writer, meditates on-line on the wintriest winter in her time in New York. 

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The political wit of Jeff Tweedy (with music too!)

Sometimes I think the Internet is the greatest invention ever, and sometimes I think it's the greatest waste of time in world history. 

But sometimes you can split the difference. You can listen to music and do other stuff at the same time. Plus, of course, the music can be pretty darn wonderful. 

Such as a Jeff Tweedy solo outing, streaming for free here on Wilcoworld

Tweedy's wry comments to the Washington, D.C. crowd in December, were pretty funny too, in the political context of the infamous "shellacking" the Democrats took in the midterm elections. 

"It's good to be back in D.C. I was here a few weeks ago, for the Rally to Restore Sanity. Unfortunately, it didn't work. Well, it worked for me — it restored my sanity. Somewhat."

The encore includes a wonderful version of Woody Guthrie's At My Window Sad and Lonely


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David Brower sees a UFO

Gotta love an autobiography in which a man will confess to everything he's ever seen, even if it makes him sound a little crazy. Here's David Brower, in his delightful autobiography For Earth's Sake (l990):

When I was eight, walking home one day [in Berkeley], I happened to look up at the sky and saw a brilliant object streak across it, leaving what I would now call a vapor trail. The object itself glowed red and tapered to a point in front. I described it excitedly when I got into the house, but there were no other witnesses and my parents must have thought I imagined it. My first UFO mystifies me still. 

Brower's not the only famous person who saw a UFO. FOr what it's worth, so did John Lennon

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The fate of the mountains under climate change: a ray of hope for the Sierra?

In his inimitably far-sighted way, John Muir considered the fate of the Sierra Nevada in an era of climate change, long before global warming even began to take hold.

In August 1875, in his journal, he wrote: 

I often wonder what man will do with the mountains…Will human destructions like those of Nature — fire and flood and avalanche — work out a higher good, a finer beauty? Another universal outpouring of lava, or the coming of a glacial period, could scarece wipe out the flowers and shrubs more effectively than the sheep. And what then is coming? What is the human part of the mountains' destiny? 

Most of the prognostications about climate change and the mountains have been, indeed, dire — more drought and higher temps forcing species up the slopes. As ecologist Tim Flannery wrote in his excellent book about climate change, The Weather Makers, alpine species globally have moved about twenty feet up the montane slopes per decade, and "the implications are outrageous" for tropical rainforests. 

But it's possible — stress on possible, not known for certain — that the Sierra may be spared. For reasons still unclear, the second half of the 20th century was wetter in California mountains than the first half, and the rising temps of climate change have resulted in many mountain species moving not upslope, as expected, but downslope, towards wetter, colder local environments, as discussed in a Science study, and noted in Bettina Boxall's excellent LA Times story

For whatever reason, [researcher] Abatzoglou said the Sierra was 5% to 10% wetter in the final half of the 1900s than in the first half, allowing tree and shrub species to take hold at lower elevations.

Comparing historic vegetation data from 1905 to 1935 to information gathered from 1975 to 2005 by researchers and federal agencies, the study found that about five dozen species had on the whole migrated downhill an average of about 264 feet.

This may be what climate researcher Kevin Trenberth calls "local embroidery," and of little long-term meaning. Or it might mean the survival of species, such as the pika, that some researchers think are doomed. Researcher Connie Millar, with the US Forest Service, is surveying the pika population, which she suspects is not doomed, at least in the Sierra. She has found the same trend — pika moving downslope, towards shadier, cooler areas — in their populations. 

Pika_5972np If you're a backpacker or mountain-climber who recalls seeing pika in the mountains, Millar would love to hear from you about the critters you saw, where and when and how many. 



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American Have-Nots: Too poor to afford Hollywood?

The collapse in revenue generated by the entertainment business has analysts thinking deeply:

The anemic economy…is widening the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, making it tougher for some consumers to justify paying for cable or tossing a new DVD into the shopping cart.

"Right now it is a tale of two cities," [Craig] Moffett, [stock market analyst for Sanford Bernstein]said.

"On the high end, people can't go up-market fast enough," he said, referring to affluent consumers who are buying the latest in mobile phones, portable tablets, or Internet-connected TV sets. "Then you have this other half of the country that is being largely ignored in this discussion."

The "other half" encompasses the lower 40% of American earners, who, after paying for food, housing and transportation, are left with just $100 a month to pay for healthcare, clothing, phone service — and entertainment, Moffett said.

It's amazing the ignored Have-Nots spend anything on the movies, if that story is true. 

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How to reduce greenhouse gas levels

Research brings forward two possibilities from the past: 

Kill a lot of people

Over the course of the century and a half run of the Mongol Empire, about 22 percent of the world's total land area had been conquered and an estimated 40 million people were slaughtered by the horse-driven, bow-wielding hordes. Depopulation over such a large swathe of land meant that countless numbers of cultivated fields eventually returned to forests.

Or, set off a lot of nuclear bombs

This study suggests that the cause of the stagnation in global warming in the mid 20th century was the atmospheric nuclear explosions detonated between 1945 and 1980. The estimated GST [global surface temperature] drop due to fine dust from the actual atmospheric nuclear explosions based on the published simulation results by other researchers ….has served to explain the stagnation in global warming. Atmospheric nuclear explosions can be regarded as full-scale in situ tests for nuclear winter. The non-negligible amount of GST drop from the actual atmospheric explosions suggests that nuclear winter is not just a theory but has actually occurred, albeit on a small scale.


This site endorses no such violent techniques, no matter how well they work in the movies. 

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Why humor matters in a speech: 2011 SOTU edition

NPR, one of the biggest news outlets in the nation, asked 4000 listeners to respond to the 2011 State of the Union address. Here's what they got back, in word cloud version: 

The discussion:

"Why is "salmon" so big? As The Two-Way explains, NPR's Facebook followers were referring to one of the night's humorous moments — when the president joked about the complicated and convoluted way the government regulates salmon.

"The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," Obama said. "I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked." That last line drew big laughs from lawmakers in the Capitol."

Note that this prominence cut across all party lines, according to the word cloud diagrams, and played a little better with Republicans and Independents than Democrats.

Why was the joke less popular with Dems? Probably because some Democrats think he's doing Reagan.

Alex Parenne at Salon articulates this point: 

Oh god he's doing Reagan. The government is so big and complicated, I have a folksy anecdote about fish that illustrates the absurdity of the entire enterprise of managing a massive, wealthy, post-industrial nation. (Obama is also bad at delivering "jokes," his apparently developed sense of irony nothwithstanding.)

But I disagree. The joke got a huge laugh in the room, and obviously played well out of the room as well. Obama showed he wants the government to make sense, by kidding it a little. Is that so wrong? 

And he showed he understands the power of humor. That's important, for an American president. Whether you like Reagan or not. 

UPDATE (1/28): Actually the President was "misinformed" — the same Federal agency oversees salmon populations, in fresh or salt water — the National Marine Fisheries Service. That's according to the reporting of Elizabeth Shogren, NPR's top-flight enviro reporter, who makes her point irrefutably. 

In other words, Obama is beginning to sound like Reagan…funny and wrong. Alarmingly so. 

h/p: Andrew Sullivan 

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What will Obama say about climate in tonight’s speech?

What will, if anything, President Obama say about climate in the State of the Union address?

John Kerry, the de facto leader on the issue in the Senate, told The Hill that he expects President Obama to embrace "major initiatives" on climate in tonight's State of the Union address.  

Carol Browner, former director of the EPA, currently serving as director of the White House's effort on climate change, said she believed the State of the Union address would include a "strong endorsement" of clean-energy efforts led by her office, but also said she's leaving the office, a discouraging sign. 

What could Obama say about climate? The story about Browner strongly implies that he will simply duck the subject, in an effort to be nice to Republicans, who have become — almost without exception — deniers. Even John McCain, who once championed legislation on climate change, has changed his spots, and on the campaign trail talked about the "great questions" on the science of climate change. 

Advance word says that Obama will term this our Sputnik moment, and call for $150 billion in clean energy over ten years, while touting the appointment of GE chairman and clean energy advocate Jeff Immelt to a largely ceremonial jobs post

What would climate hawks like to see? I would like Obama to point out the comparison between the predictability of the Great Recession, which was avoidable, a bipartisan report concluded today, and the damaging effects of climate change, the worst of which are still avoidable.

The full report on the financial crisis won't be released until Thursday, but here's the conclusion from preliminary reports: 

"The greatest tragedy would be to accept the refrain that no one could have seen this coming and thus nothing could have been done.”

Similarly, the worst downstream effects of climate change — scarring droughts, the acidification of the ocean, the melting of the ice sheets — are still avoidable, if we act now.

Fortunately, we have thoughtful folks thinking this through for us, as Toles reminds us…



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The gospel of the cult of Mac

Since it's Sunday, it's worth bringing back a gorgeous little essay recently posted by Andrew Crouch. He takes seriously an idea easy to deride — that Steve Jobs offers a desperate world a faith: the cult of the Mac. Of Apple. 

As Crouch says:

As remarkable as Steve Jobs is in countless ways—as a designer, an innovator, a (ruthless and demanding) leader—his most singular quality has been his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple’s early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and made it a sign of promise and progress.

Crouch goes on to quote Jobs speaking about his cancer diagnosis in a famous speech, and, implicitly, about his faith. 

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.

Yes, it's an elegant statement — perhaps we shouldn't be surprised! As Crouch says, it is "the gospel of a secular age." 

If religion is anything, it is alive today even in the lives of perhaps thirty-million Americans who consider themselves non-religious. Many of those people use Apple products, and buy Apple stock. Some even work for Apple. 

We can make fun of the cult of Mac. It is a religion. But as William James, the psychologist and empirist of faith, and the author of Varieties of Religious Experience, said, at the end of the day, we can only judge a religion by its fruits. And Apple's fruits have been very good…

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The truth about campfire stories

When Indexed (as in cartoons on index cards, by Jessica Hagy) is good, it's very very good


And, frankly, when it's not great, it's still kind of amazing.  

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