Category Archives: Climate Change

Hurricanes and Smoke

23 October 2020, 9:10a: Satellite shows Hurricane Epsilon near Bermuda and smoke from Colorado’s East Troublesome Wildfire crossing the Atlantic (image from GOES East, crop+description from Yale Climate Connections)

2020 has been a prolific year for heat, fires and hurricanes.

Last month was the hottest September on record, dangerous western wildfires have been burning since late July, and the Atlantic has had so many storms that the National Hurricane Center ran out of English alphabet letters and began naming storms using the Greek alphabet.

On Friday, 23 October 2020, Yale Climate Connections reported that a weather disturbance in the Caribbean is likely to become the sixth Greek alphabet storm, Zeta. That’s number 32. In the report they included an intriguing GOES EAST satellite image, above, with this explanation.

Smoke from Colorado’s second largest fire on record, the 170,000-acre East Troublesome Fire, was carried by the jet stream to the northeast of Hurricane Epsilon (upper right of image).

Yale Climate Connections: Disturbance in the western Caribbean likely to become Tropical Storm Zeta

As this moment Colorado’s East Troublesome Wildfire is burning through Rocky Mountain National Park and threatening Estes Park (click here for video). I’m not surprised the smoke showed up near a hurricane.

See more reports at Yale Climate Connections:

(image from GOES East cropped by Yale Climate Connections)

Sunrise and Heat

Sunrise in Pittsburgh, 18 October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

24 October 2020

Last week there was frost in the suburbs on 17 October. This week 23 October was unusually hot at 78-80 degrees F (26C) in Schenley Park. I had to wear summer clothes yesterday but will wear warm clothes tomorrow when it’s 38F. Join me at 8:30am at Bartlett Shelter in Schenley Park. Wear a mask.

Though it felt like July this week I found some beautiful autumn scenes in Pittsburgh.

Above, the sun rose red at 7:34am on 18 October for 11 hours of daylight. Today we’ll have only 10 hours 45 minutes of cloudy light.

Frick Park was golden yellow on 21 October.

Frick Park, 21 October 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

The Panther Hollow Bridge cast a shadow on Schenley Park’s trees yesterday morning, 23 Oct.

Schenley Park, Panther Hollow Lake, 23 Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. You can tell it was a hot week in Schenley by the presence of algae on the water’s surface.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Arctic Sea Ice Is Connected To Everything Else

2020 Arctic Sea Ice Minimum (map from NOAA based on data from NSIDC)

Arctic sea ice melts in the summer reaching it’s lowest extent every year in September. On 21 September 2020, reported that ice coverage reached its minimum on 15 September, the second lowest extent in 40 years of tracking. (The lowest low was in 2012 only 8 years ago.)

We might think this lack of sea ice won’t affect us but in fact ice acts like a thermoregulator, reflecting the sun’s heat so that Earth’s climate stays relatively constant. As the ice disappears we’re subjected to heat waves, droughts, fires, and the cold Polar Vortex.

This 5-minute video from NASA Goddard shows how Arctic sea ice is connected to everything else.

(map from NOAA based on data from NSIDC)

Massive Die Off of Birds in New Mexico … why?

Dead orange-crowned warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons used as an illustration, not taken in New Mexico)

18 September 2020

In late August reports started trickling in that high numbers of migratory birds were being found dead in New Mexico. The first report was at White Sands Missile Range on 20 August but as time passed the reports became more frequent, the locations increased, and so did the death toll. By now experts believe that hundreds of thousands of birds have died — perhaps millions — not only in New Mexico (red on map below) but in Colorado, Arizona and western Texas (orange highlight on map).

General area of U.S. where massive bird die off is occurring (map from Wikimedia Commons). New Mexico is red

Austin Fisher took a video of the carnage last Sunday, 13 September 2020 in Velarde, New Mexico.

Science Alert reports that only migratory birds are affected, not the local residents. Most of the dead birds are warblers, swallows and flycatchers and “the affected travelers seem to act strangely before their deaths, spending more time on the ground than perched in trees, and generally appearing dazed, sleepy, and lethargic.”

Dr. Andrew Farnsworth at Cornell Lab of Ornithology believes the smoke from the western wildfires is a big factor.

While birds migrate south through the Rockies this fall they must fly through the ubiquitous wildfire smoke blowing across the US from California, Oregon and Washington. Here’s what it looked like via satellite on August 20, the first day dead birds were reported in New Mexico. Notice that the smoke had reached New Mexico that day.

Satellite image of wildfire smoke across the U.S. west, 20 August 2020 (image from NASA)

Unfortunately birds’ respiratory systems are so different from ours and so efficient that they succumb quickly to bad air.

We turn oxygen into CO2 in one breath — in/out. Every exhalation releases the CO2/remains of the air we just breathed in.

When birds breathe, the air that enters their bodies stays inside for two breaths — in/out + in/out. During its 4-step journey, the air molecule travels through the lungs, two sets of air sacs and into the birds’ hollow bones where it waits for the next step. Click on the diagram below to watch the airflow inside a bird.

Birds’ respiratory system, screenshot from animation at Oxford Learning Link

Sadly, the western fires are damaging much more than we realize. UPDATE 23 Sept 2020: a recent study found that the birds died of hypothermia and starvation. See: Explaining the recent mass mortality of western birds.

Read more about the bird die off at Science Alert and the New York Times.

(images from Wikimedia Commons, NASA and a screenshot from Oxford Learning Link. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Smoke Gets In Our Eyes

Late afternoon sun looks pink in Pittsburgh, 14 Sept 2020 (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

16 September 2020

This week’s spooky sunsets and hazy skies in eastern North America are due to smoke from the massive wildfires in Washington, Oregon and California. The smoke is so intense that it’s dispersing across the continent and across the Atlantic, causing haze in Europe.

Near sunset on Monday 14 September the sun was a strange shade of pink in Pittsburgh, captured above in true color by Jonathan Nadle.

We can’t see the smoke coming but the satellites do, blowing eastward in two paths on Tuesday 15 September: one over the Northern Plains and Great Lakes, the other over Nebraska to Kentucky and Virginia.

It’s also blowing west over the Pacific, shown here on Friday 11 September.

The haze is inconvenient for us but truly hazardous on the West Coast. The dark brown colors on the map below are the worst air quality in the world. The air is so bad that people are leaving the area. I know of at least one person who’s fleeing from San Francisco to Pittsburgh.

screenshot of AirNow air quality map, 16 Sept 2020

By now the fires cover 4.5 million acres, an area so large that it’s hard to imagine. To help you visualize it The Guardian has created an interactive map comparing the fire acreage to well known cities and your own hometown — click here or on the tiny screenshot below. NOTE: The comparison below is for New York City. I compared the fire acreage to Pittsburgh and found it would run from approximately I-80 to the PA-West Virginia line!

Meanwhile the sunsets are still creepy.

Strange sun at sunset in Pittsburgh (filtered), 15 September 2020 (photo by Jonathan Nadle)

None of us are immune to this huge effect of climate change. Smoke gets in our eyes.

UPDATE: Janet Campagna, who lives in California, remarked that the days are much cooler because the sun can’t get through the smoke. This reminded me of the volcanic winter which results from smoke in the atmosphere after giant volcanic eruptions such as Krakatoa in 1883 and Mount Pinatubo in 1991.

(photos by Jonathan Nadle, screenshot of AirNow map from, screenshot of article from The Guardian)

Fall Migration is Earlier Due to Climate Change

American robin in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3 September 2020

Here’s something that’s counter-intuitive: As our climate changes we know that North America stays warmer in the fall yet songbirds that migrate at night — cuckoos, flycatchers, warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles and sparrows — are leaving earlier on fall migration than they used to.

A study led by Kyle Horton published last December in Nature Climate Change found that in the past 24 years the peak of nocturnal migration is earlier in the spring — as expected because it’s warmer — but also earlier in the fall.

At Pittsburgh’s latitude (40oN) the spring peak is 1.4 days earlier, fall is 0.8 days earlier as shown in this graphic embedded from the BirdCast blog about the study: Phenology of nocturnal avian migration has shifted at the continental scale.

Predicted peak spring (a) and autumn (c) migration dates by year and latitude (figure embedded from BirdCast blog by Andrew Farnsworth)

You can see this play out in their video of annual migration phenology.

The video illustrates another amazing thing: The Central Flyway — the Great Plains and Mississippi Valley — is a much bigger songbird migration corridor than either coast.

p.s. Downtown Pittsburgh’s GPS location (rounded) is 40.44, -80.00

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, graphic and video embedded from BirdCast blog and Phenology of nocturnal avian migration has shifted at the continental scale; click on the captions to see the originals)

Disappearing into Thin Air

  • Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, 1998 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to remember what we worried about before the coronavirus, but long term water crises provoked by climate change are still chugging along in the U.S. West. The most troubling of these is looming at the Colorado River, the water source for over 40 million people.

Many of the seven western states in the Colorado River watershed are suffering under severe to extreme drought. Of course it affects the river.

U.S. Drought Monitor map as of 28 July 2020,

But drought is not the only factor. A study published last February found that 20% of the river flow has been lost to the albedo effect in a period of 20 years.

Albedo is a reflectivity measure of various surfaces as they reflect sunlight back into space. Snow and ice have high albedo, bare ground and trees have low albedo. Melting snow and ice expose low albedo ground so the temperature rises. As the temperature rises more snow and ice melt. This climate change feedback loop is affecting the Colorado River.

The two photos at top span 22 years on the Colorado River at Lake Mead where Hoover Dam holds back the river. The amount of water in the lake is highly controlled by upstream dams but about 20% of that “bathtub ring” can be attributed to the albedo effect.

The river is disappearing into thin air.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Colorado River watershed map from, drought map from

100 Degrees in the Arctic!

June sun in Siberia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In case you missed it: On Saturday 20 June 2020 the temperature hit 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C) in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, north of the Arctic Circle! This is the town that also sets coldest temperature records.

Verkhoyansk holds the record for both the hottest and the coldest temperatures ever recorded above the Arctic circle, with 38.0 °C (100.4 °F) and – 67.8 °C (- 90.0 °F) respectively.

Wikipedia entry about Verkhoyansk

The low in Verkhoyansk last November was -65.2oF. This month’s high of 100.4 is a 165oF swing. Talk about climate change! Check out this tweet.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; tweet embedded)

Does Spring Still Move 13 Miles A Day?

Crocuses blooming in Germany, early March (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a rule of thumb from the last century that says “Spring moves north 13 miles a day.” On average this means that if crocuses began blooming in Morgantown, West Virginia a week ago they ought to start blooming in Butler, PA today.

However this year’s spring is so early and so hot that I’m wondering if the rule is still true. The animated map below shows spring leaf out moving north from 1 January through 10 March 2020. Some days spring leaps many miles.

Spring Leaf Index as of 10 Mar 2020 (animation from USA National Phenology Network)

According to the USA National Phenology Network, spring is many weeks ahead of schedule, particularly in the eastern US. It’s “three to four weeks earlier than a long-term average (1981-2010) in some locations. Washington, DC and New York City are 24 days early, Nantucket is 30 days early.” Wow!

Leaf out in Pittsburgh began in early February, tulip leaves emerged in late February and I saw the first crocus bloom last week.

So what do you think? Is spring moving faster than it used to? Or just sooner?

Follow the signs of spring at the USA National Phenology Network and Journey North. Here are some cool maps that track what’s going on:

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; map from USA National Phenology Network; click on the captions to see the originals)

Despite The Cold, An Early Spring

Honeysuckle buds March 2019 vs Feb 2020 (photos by Kate St. John)

Except for a 10 degree cold snap in the last 24 hours, we’re having an early Spring.

So far this year temperatures in Pittsburgh have been 10-34 degrees above normal a third of the time. January 11 was 34 degrees above normal at 71 degrees F.

Honeysuckle bushes responded by leafing out. Last Monday (10 February 2020) I found open honeysuckle buds in my neighborhood. I took a similar photo last year on 11 March 2019 but it was whole month later and the buds were not as open.

According to the USA National Phenology Network, Spring is three weeks ahead of schedule in the southeastern US:

Spring leaf out has arrived in the Southeast, over three weeks earlier than a long-term average (1981-2010) in some locations. Charlottesville, VA is 24 days early, Knoxville, TN is 20 days early, and Nashville, TN is 18 days early.

Status of Spring

Here’s what it looks like on the map as of 14 February 2020.

Spring Leaf Index as of 14 Feb 2020 (animation from USA National Phenology Network)

Despite the cold, today will warm to almost 40 degrees in Pittsburgh and to 52 by Tuesday. I think we’ll still have an early Spring.

(photos by Kate St. John, map from