Category Archives: Climate Change

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

The Last Trek to the North Pole

Eric Larsen on his trek to the North Pole, May 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re going to walk to the North Pole, February is the month to start. The sea ice is at maximum thickness, the weather is slightly less harsh, and you still have enough time to get there before the spring thaw. Or do you?

The North Pole is all water, covered by the Arctic Ocean which is covered by sea ice. Explorers can get there on foot in about 50 days — unassisted and without re-supplies — if the ice holds. However, climate change is warming the Arctic faster than anywhere else on Earth. The ice doesn’t hold anymore.

The last unsupported trek to the North Pole was completed six years ago.

In 2014, Eric Larsen and his partner, Ryan Waters, skied, walked, and swam 480 nautical miles from Cape Discovery on Canada’s Ellesmere Island to the North Pole, lugging all of their supplies with them on sleds. 

National Geographic: Are North Pole expeditions a thing of the past?
Eric Larsen swimming in the Arctic Ocean on his trek to the North Pole, 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Seven weeks later as they approached their goal the ice was breaking up.

When Larsen and Waters were just 33 feet from the North Pole, the ice under their feet was drifting away from the pole faster than they could walk. So they ran. On May 6, 2014, they reached the North Pole, becoming the 46th and 47th people to complete such a trek unsupported.

National Geographic: Are North Pole expeditions a thing of the past?

Fortunately they didn’t have to walk back. A small Canadian airline that used to support these treks picked them up at the North Pole. Afterward, the airline announced it would no longer support North Pole expeditions

Eric Larsen explains why in an interview about his 2016 book On Thin Ice: An Epic Final Quest Into the Melting Arctic.

“It’s hard to describe, but the character and the nature of the sea ice is different. From a scientific perspective, the thickness of the ice is much less, so it’s much thinner, and the overall extent is less. So the icepack has shrunk,” he explains. “It definitely hit this real exponential change from 2010 to 2014.”

Explorer … explains how the Arctic is vanishing before our eyes

Another polar explorer, Sebastian Copeland, tried to make an unsupported trek in 2017 but it was too late. He had to stop before he got there.

Six years after the last possible trek to the North Pole we’re still amazed by climate change.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the originals)

Safely Underground

Southern hairy-nosed wombat (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Amidst the raging bushfires in Australia there’s a bit of happy news. Wombats are unintentionally saving wildlife.

Wombats are nocturnal marsupials that live in burrows which they dig with their teeth and claws. Specially adapted for their underground life, the female’s pouch where she carries her young faces backward so the dirt doesn’t get into it.

Southern hairy-nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus latifrons) are the smallest of the three wombat species. At 30 inches long and weighing 42 to 71 pounds, their extensive tunnels have many entrances, long “hallways,” several large warrens, and smaller chambers. They are known to share their burrows with other wombats and are tolerant of visits by other species. Southern hairy-nosed wombats live in the fire zone.

Wombat burrow in New South Wales, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Rescuers figured out the importance of wombat burrows when they found healthy, unscathed animals wandering in newly burned areas including small wallabies, echidnas, lizards, skinks and rabbits. As the fires approached, the fleeing animals dove into wombat burrows to shelter safely while the firestorm passed overhead.

Two species that may benefit from the wombat burrows are shown below.

The swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) is common in the bushfire area, measuring 27-30 inches excluding its tail. Rock wallabies are even smaller.

Swamp wallaby feeding on leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) are egg-laying mammals like the platypus that measure 12-18 inches long. They eat ants and termites.

Sheltering underground is not a new thing. It turns out that small mammals survived the meteor that killed the dinosaurs by hiding safely underground. Wombats are inadvertently doing their bit to save wildlife today.

(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Smaller is Normal

Song sparrow, western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

From their 29% population decline to the continued loss of federal protection the news about birds has not been good in recent months. When a December 2019 study from Chicago’s Field Museum found that North American birds have been shrinking since 1978 you may have wondered, “Is this bad news for birds?” Not exactly.

The study published in Ecology Letters measured 70,000 window-killed birds collected in Chicago since 1978. Analysis showed that the 52 species significantly declined in body size during the 40 year period (1978-2018). This mirrors a 2010 study conducted at Powdermill Nature Reserve in Pennsylvania which used 46 years of banding data (1961-2007) to analyze the body size of nearly 500,000 birds in 102 species. Powdermill also saw a decline in body size.

Both studies correlated the annual mean summer temperature of the species’ breeding range and reached the same conclusion: As the climate heats up, birds are getting smaller.

We should expect this.

There’s a biological rule of thumb called Bergmann’s Rule which states that, within a species, populations living in colder climates have larger body size than those in warmer climates. Bergmann’s explanation is that large animals have a lower surface-area-to-volume ratio so they lose heat more slowly in cold climates while small animals have a higher surface-to-volume ratio and can cool off faster when it’s hot.

Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) provide a good example of Bergmann’s rule because they range across North America from Alaska to Newfoundland and south to Mexico. I saw their variability up close in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Section of Birds in December 2016. My photo below shows sparrows collected in Alaska in the top row, sparrows from Pennsylvania on the bottom.

Song sparrows in Carnegie Museum of Natural History collection, Alaska on top row, Pennsylvania on bottom row (photo by Kate St. John, Dec 2016)

Here’s a closeup placed side by side (below):

  • On the left, two song sparrows collected in Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh (leftmost) and Geneva Marsh.
  • On the right, song sparrows collected in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands at Unalaska (leftmost) and Sanak.

Alaskan song sparrows are so large that they have to be placed sideways in the tray!

Smaller size is normal where it’s warmer.

It isn’t bad news for birds and it tells us two additional things:

  1. Birds’ bodies have been registering climate change long before we humans noticed or admitted it.
  2. Birds can evolve quickly when they have to.

Read about the Field Museum study at North American birds are shrinking. Read more about the Powdermill study at Birds are getting smaller.

p.s. This article was inspired by Andrew Nikiforuk’s As The Birds Vanish.

(top photo by Steve Gosser, remaining photos by Kate St. John)

Ponds On The Ocean

Ponds on the Arctic Ocean (photo by NASA’s Kathryn Hanson via Wikimedia Commons)

Ice and snow are returning this weekend in Pittsburgh but they won’t look like this.

In July 2011 two men walked between the melt ponds on top of the ice on the Arctic Ocean. The patterns and texture resemble flocked fabric. Click here to see a fabric sample.

When the ice breaks the freshwater ponds will fall into the sea. Fortunately the two men will be back on their boat before that happens.

Find out why they’re there in the photo description at this link.

(photo from NASA via Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Not With My Relatives

Two scythebill species: black-billed (left), red-billed (right) (from Wikimedia Commons)

When deforestation and climate change destroy swaths of habitat, some people assume that birds will be OK because, unlike mammals, they can fly to new locations.

However a 2012 study of two closely related scythebills discovered that the displaced birds don’t survive, even in habitat like the ones they left, because they’re out-competed by the locals.

On Throw Back Thursday, find out why these birds can’t survive near their relatives in this vintage blog: Why Don’t They Just Move?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption links to see the originals)

No Winter Fun

Snow shovel riding, Slovakia 1959 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that climate change has really settled in there are loads of free fun winter activities that we can’t do in Pittsburgh. I was reminded of this when I heard that the Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship was postponed last Saturday. Last year it was eventually canceled. As the Beaver County Times wrote last month:

The Beaver County Snow Shovel Riding Championship returns in 2020. That comes with the major assumption that sufficient snow rests on the 165-foot hill at Old Economy Park, just off Route 989 in Economy, on Jan. 11 or the makeup date of Jan. 18.

Beaver County Times, Let it snow, if shovel riding championship is to return

Last Saturday, 11 January 2020, was so hot that it broke a 130-year record. At Pittsburgh International Airport, nine miles from that Beaver County hillside, it was 71 degrees F. Of course there was no snow.

Other winter fun we’re missing includes building snowmen, making snow angels, and cross country skiing. These still might happen for a day or two if we get one big snowfall.

Building a snowman at Lafayette Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Making a snow angel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Cross country skiing, Aroostook NWR, 2012 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But some winter fun is just plain dangerous in today’s world. Ice fishermen used to count on our frozen lakes but these days the ice is missing or very thin. Unsafe!

Ice fishing at Price Gallitzin State Park, PA, 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To emphasize this dilemma, the Great Lakes were virtually ice free on January 12.

Ice coverage on Great Lakes, 12 Jan 2020 analysis (map from US National Ice Center)

No winter fun.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; map from U.S. National Ice Center; click on the captions to see the originals)