Category Archives: Climate Change

Air Then and Now

50 million year-old spider and air trapped in amber (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

22 April 2021

If you want to know what the air was like 100 million years ago, look at the air trapped in amber. In 2013 scientists analyzed 538 samples and discovered that in the age of the dinosaurs there was less oxygen in the air than now. The concentration in the early Cretaceous period was only 10-15% compared to 21% oxygen today. It was similar to the available oxygen at Mount Everest Base Camp.

If you want to know what the air is like now in the U.S. check the 22nd annual State of the Air Report issued yesterday by the American Lung Association (ALA). Sadly, Pittsburgh is still in the top 10 of Bad Air cities for year-round particle pollution.

The State of the Air Report doesn’t even measure the rotten egg smell — hydrogen sulfide, H2S — that’s produced by U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works and Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock.

High concentrations of H2S (widely recognized by its foul, rotten-egg odor) are registered all too often in the Mon Valley. In fact, so far this year there have already been 21 exceedances of Pennsylvania’s 24-hour average H2S standard – 13 at the Liberty monitor and eight more at the North Braddock monitor., State of the Air Report, 21 April 2021

This month has been especially bad. Here’s what it looked like last Sunday 18 April on Smell PGH’s crowd-sourced bad smell report.

In Pittsburgh, the nose knows.

That rotten egg smell (Tammany cartoon via Wikimedia Commons, text removed)

Read more about the air the dinosaurs breathed in this vintage blog: Ancient Air.

Read more about Pittsburgh air quality (Pittsburgh area air quality still gets failing grades) and what you can do about it at the Group Against Smog and

p.s. The scientific paper about the air-in-amber research is here:

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Smell PGH screenshot from the app; click on the captions to see the originals)

What’s Changed In 7 Years?

Ruddy duck in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 April 2021

About once a week I look back seven years to highlight an old blog post that is still interesting today. This morning when I looked back, I was stunned at how different spring is now in southwestern PA compared to April 2014. A lot has changed in seven years. Migrating ducks, singing frogs and flowers are showing up earlier in 2021. For instance …

Have you seen a lot of ruddy ducks lately? Seven years ago the bulk of their migration through Moraine State Park began on 5 April 2014. This year it started almost a month earlier on 11 March 2021 and is basically over now. Here’s the 2014 blog post that caught my attention: Ruddy Bubbles. Click on the hotspot icons here to see this year’s ruddy duck activity at Moraine.

Have you heard spring peepers or wood frogs calling lately? Seven years ago they were loud on 6 April 2014 (Jeepers Creepers) but this year their peak was on 12 March 2021 at Racooon Wildflower Reserve: Sights and Sounds of Early Spring. When I returned to Raccoon twelve days later the frogs were quieter. They were silent on 4 April 2021.

Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)
Spring peeper calling in the Ozarks (photo by Justin Meissen via Wikimedia Commons)

On 31 March 2021 I found bloodroot and hepatica blooming at Cedar Creek: Before The Freeze. Seven years ago they bloomed a couple of weeks later on 12 April 2014: It Was Fun While It Lasted.

Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 19 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bloodroot blooming at Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, 12 April 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

What’s changed in seven years? The climate is warmer. Nature is responding.

It will be interesting to see what happens next.

(photos from Wikimdeia Commons and by Kate St. John)

Birds Decline, Small Mammals Thrive in a Hotter World

Cactus mouse (photo by J.N. Stuart, Creative Commons license via iNaturalist)

8 March 2021

What is the future of life on Earth as the climate warms? Which species will thrive and which decline? A study published last month in Science indicates that “in a warming world, it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.”

In the early 1900’s Joseph Grinnell made extremely detailed records of flora and fauna in California’s Mojave Desert for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. A century later the average temperature in the Mojave is now 2oC (3.6oF) higher. Using Grinnell’s records a team led by Eric Riddell resurveyed Grinnell’s locations to find out how birds and mammals fare in hotter, drier conditions.

If you like birds, you won’t like the news.

[In the Mojave Desert] Over the past century, occupancy of small mammals remained stable while birds severely declined.

On average, every spot surveyed had lost more than 40% of its desert bird species, such as American kestrels or mountain quail. At most sites, even the remaining species were scarcer.

Science Magazine: In a warming world it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.
American kestrel, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Small mammals get around the heat problem by staying underground during the day. Birds don’t have this choice and they have an additional disadvantage — their bodies use more energy to stay cool.

It looks like there will be fewer birds in a hotter world. Read more in Science Magazine: In a warming world it’s better to be a small mammal than a bird.

p.s. There is a bird who stays underground during the day and eats small mammals in the Mojave Desert: the burrowing owl.

(cactus mouse photo by J. N. Stuart via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC-ND), American kestrel photo by Cris Hamilton)

Won’t Live Where It’s Hot

Stresemann’s bush-crows, Soda Plains, Ethiopia (photo by Nik Borrow, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Seven years ago I wrote about an endangered member of the crow family in Ethiopia whose range is small and shrinking. Similar in size and sociability to our Florida scrub-jay, Stresemann’s bush-crow (Zavattariornis stresemanni or Ethiopian bush-crow) lives in just 6,000 square miles of southern Ethiopia’s Borana rangelands in an area smaller than New Jersey.

Has the bird’s status changed in the last seven years? No, but we know more.

A 2012 study found that his range was limited by daily high temperature. In 2018 a team of scientists investigated further, taking temperatures throughout the region and comparing the bush-crow’s range to two other local species — white-crowned and superb starlings. Their report at the British Ornithological Union blog showed that Stresemann’s bush-crow has a narrow favorite temperature range and is heat intolerant.

The starlings don’t care how hot it gets but the bush-crow won’t live where the maximum daily temperature is over 30 degrees C (86 degrees F). (Graphs embedded below from

Figure 3 embedded from study in 2018 on Ethiopian bush-crow

This wouldn’t be a problem except that it’s getting hotter.

Find out more about the bush-crow’s dilemma at:

(photo of Stresemann’s bush-crow by Nik Borrow via Flickr Creative Commons license, Figure 3 embedded from High temperatures and hot birds; click on the captions to see the originals)

Tarballs in the Himalayas

Mt Everest, Himalayas (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

9 December 2020

Every November air pollution spikes in India as farmers in the Punjab burn their fields in preparation for the next crop. Because the practice causes terrible air pollution it was outlawed in 2015, but small farmers cannot afford to buy the machines needed to clear the fields so the practice continues year after year.

Burning stubble to clear the fields, Nov 2011, Punjab, India (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When the stubble burns Delhi is smothered in dangerous air pollution. The smoke from thousands of fires swirls high in the atmosphere and can be seen from satellites.

Smoke from agricultural fires (red dots) swirls toward the Himalayas, Nov 2013, NASA MODIS satellite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile glaciers in the Himalayas have been retreating for the past decade. Scientists wondered if atmospheric carbon air pollution, landing on the white ice, was a factor in their warming. A team led by Yuan Q placed air pollution monitors in remote locations on the northern side of the Himalayas. Their report, published by the American Chemical Society on 4 November 2020, found an amazing thing:

Using electron microscopy, the researchers unexpectedly found that about 28% of the thousands of particles in the air samples from the Himalayan research station were tarballs, and the percentage increased on days with elevated levels of pollution. Brown carbon ‘tarballs’ detected in Himalayan atmosphere , 4 Nov 2020

Microscopic tarballs form from brown carbon in the smoke of organic fires — in this case, stubble burning. They are so lightweight that they travel far, rising over the Himalayas to deposit on the other side. Their dark color absorbs sunlight and causes the glaciers to melt faster.

How smoke transforms to brown carbon tarballs in the Himalayas (CREDIT: ACS / Environmental Science & Technology Letters, graphic embedded from SciTechDaily news)

Stubble burning is a persistent annual problem in India as shown in the 2018 video from France 24 below.

Dec 2018: Crop burning crisis: India chokes as farmers set fields on fire, France 24 News

As India’s government provides community-shared machines for clearing stubble, the burning will come to an end. Will it be soon enough for the glaciers? Probably not.

Read more in this 4 Nov 2020 press release from Brown carbon ‘tarballs’ detected in Himalayan atmosphere

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, chart embedded from; click on the captions to see the originals)

The study is here: Yuan Q et al. Evidence for Large Amounts of Brown Carbonaceous Tarballs in the Himalayan Atmosphere. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Published 4 November 2020.

No Need To Huddle

Ducks in a huddle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 November 2020

As temperatures soared this week from 9 to 19 degrees above normal, I remembered the time when our furnace broke in late September 2009. We thought we could tough it out while we waited for the new furnace to arrive but it was cold! The temperature went down on 25 September 2009 and never came up again. Like ducklings, we huddled inside to stay warm.

This graph shows how much we needed the furnace in the fall of 2009. The higher the blue line, the more we needed heat. We didn’t need air conditioning (orange line) after 25 Sept 2009.

Not so this year! Every 10 days or so the temperature climbs so high that we’d benefit from air conditioning. Rather than flipping the thermostat from heat (blue line) to A/C (red line), I wear my summer clothes again. Climate change makes the temperature fluctuate widely.

For five days this month it was summertime even though the trees couldn’t provide much shade.

Schenley Park’s Serpentine Drive, 10 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

Today the weather will turn cold. The furnace is ready. No need to huddle this year.

p.s. Read about our no-furnace adventure in this vintage article: Huddle!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and by Kate St. John)

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. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that wildfire smoke is killing migratory birds a thousand miles away. … Another unexpected outcome of climate change.

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

UPDATE 23 Sept 2020: A study close in time to the event concluded the birds died of hypothermia and starvation: Explaining the recent mass mortality of western birds.

UPDATE 31 March 2021: Further research found a strong correlation between the observations of dead birds and wildfires and the toxic gases they produced, but not a correlation with the early winter storms: Study Finds Wildfire Caused Massive Bird Die Off

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