Category Archives: Climate Change

Things Have Changed

Sunset on a hot day (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s October but you wouldn’t know it by stepping outdoors. We’re still running the air conditioner and wearing summer clothes. Today’s low temperature of 68oF is the normal high for October 1 in Pittsburgh. Our 90oF high will be 22 degrees above normal. It feels like August.

It didn’t used to be this way. Do you remember when you used to turn on the heat in September or suffer because you delayed to save money? Ten years ago our furnace broke and we were cold! I wrote this on 1 October 2009:

The weather has been getting colder every day for a week.  This morning it was in the upper 30s at dawn.  By now most of you have turned on your heat, but not us.  We’re toughing it out until we get a new furnace.  The old one won’t turn on and rather than pay to fix it I thought we could cope without it until the furnace man comes with a new one on Friday.

from “Huddle,” Outside My Window, 1 October 2009

Without a functioning furnace in late September 2009 we wore coats indoors and huddled under blankets at night. That was normal weather back then.

For the past ten years our climate has been changing, but so gradually that we only remark on the extremes: unbearable heat, super low cold, or incredibly wet weather. We humans accept the new normal so quickly that we lose sight of what’s happening.

It’s good to look back ten years and realize it was normal to wear coats on October 1.

Things have changed.

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

From Grief To Action

Red-winged blackbird, Point Pelee, Ontario, 2010 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday I shared a report on the stunning loss of North American birds. 29% have disappeared since 1970 with heavy losses in many of my favorite species including blackbirds, warblers and wood thrushes. We grieve as Silent Spring happens before our eyes.

Though the report was depressing there were two bright spots that provide hope and can guide us from grief to action. The report includes this happy news: Ducks increased 56% and raptors 200% thanks to our intervention.

Ring-necked ducks take off, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ring-necked ducks, March 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Ducks were in such steep decline in the early 1900s that hunters banded together to reverse the trend. The main cause of decline was habitat loss — the disappearance of wetlands — so they worked to pass wetland protection laws in the U.S. and Canada and migratory duck protection in Mexico. People gave of their time and money to build wetland habitat for waterfowl, especially through Ducks Unlimited. Their effort paid off.

Female peregrine in flight, May 2016 (photo by Peter Bell)

Meanwhile, by 1970 peregrine falcons were extinct east of the Mississippi and bald eagle populations had crashed. The cause was a pesticide — DDT — that was outlawed in the U.S. in 1972. With Endangered Species Act protection and the work of recovery programs, peregrine falcons and bald eagles made a stunning come back.

The recent decline in North American birds has its root in the same problems we solved for ducks and raptors: habitat loss and pesticides. We solved it before, can do it again. We can turn our grief into action.

Our actions can be small scale or large — from our own backyards, to local schools and parks, to the national level.

On a personal scale, Cornell Lab of Ornithology suggests seven simple things. I’ll add two questions to think about: Do you treat your lawn? Do you ‘fog’ your backyard to keep mosquitoes away? Reducing insects means birds and nestlings starve.

On a local and national scale we can work to restore habitat and reduce pesticides through conservation organizations and our local Audubon and birding clubs (see list at end).

And finally, we can work to change attitudes toward nature and we can vote. Wetland protection and pesticide laws were key to saving ducks and raptors. Every level of government — from school board to nation — makes decisions that affect birds.

After an interval of grief, we’ll have a lot to do. We can do it. We just have to try.

Red-winged blackbird flock, Kansas, 2006 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(red-winged blackbird photos from Wikimedia Commons; 7 Simple Things from Cornell Lab of Ornithology; click on the captions to see the originals. Ring-necked ducks by Steve Gosser, peregrine falcon by Peter Bell)

p.s. Pittsburghers, here are some land and bird conservation organizations, mostly local:

29% of Our Birds Have Vanished

In the past several years my friends and I have noticed it. We expect to see a lot of birds at our feeders and on migration but something has gone wrong. We rarely see so many, sometimes almost none. There are fewer birds than there used to be.

The truth is worse than we thought. A report published in Science on 19 September 2019, shows that the bird population of North America has declined by 2.9 billion birds since 1970. Half of that decline occurred in the last 10 years(*). Indeed, we have seen Silent Spring happening before our eyes.

The declines are uneven across species and regions. Grassland species have been hit the hardest with more than half gone. Boreal forests have lost a third. 617 million wood warblers are gone.

The research team, led by Kenneth V. Rosenberg of Cornell University, analyzed many data sets including Breeding Bird Surveys, Christmas Bird Counts and US Fish and Wildlife Surveys. The most poignant proof came from a non-human counter — radar data of nocturnal spring migration. Across the U.S. from 2007 to 2017 weather radar saw a 14% reduction in our bird population.

The heaviest losses occurred in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways (blue and green on map).

Migration flyways map from Melissa Mayntz at The Spruce
Migration flyways map, Melissa Mayntz at The Spruce

Pittsburgh’s radar station was in the top 20% of locations that lost birds.

Pittsburgh’s National Weather Service radar in Moon Twp PA (photo from weather.gov)

Here’s just a sample of the decline in species since 1970:

  • 50% of red-winged blackbirds have vanished,
  • 92% of blackpoll warblers have disappeared since 1966,
  • 70% of chimney swifts,
  • 60% of wood thrushes,
  • 25% of blue jays (Have You Seen Any Blue Jays Lately?),
  • 81% of house sparrows and 49% of starlings. Though these two species are invasive their demise is an indication of how serious this is.

The reasons for decline are across the board including increased use of pesticides, habitat loss, collisions with windows, cats and many more. For instance, neonicotinoid pesticides, deadly to bees, are weakening songbirds so they delay migration or fail to complete it. Logging and fires in the boreal forest and in Central and South America have eliminated warbler habitat on both breeding and wintering grounds.

Birders have noticed the decline because it recently accelerated. Half the birds disappeared in the first 40 years. The other half vanished in the last decade.

Right now some of us are grieving, an ecological grief for the loss of birds and the prospect of a bleak future.

But there are bright spots in the report that give us hope and a way forward. I’ll write about them tomorrow.

(Credits: slideshow images courtesy Cornell University Digital Press Kit, flyways map by Melissa Mayntz at The Spruce, photo of Pittsburgh NWS radar station from weather.gov.)

Source material and additional information:

Is The Blob Back Again?

Sea surface temperature anomalies in northeast Pacific, 2014 and 2019 (maps from NOAA)

In the fall of 2014 a persistent weather pattern in the northeastern Pacific stopped the normal upwelling of cold water from Alaska to California. Sea surface temperatures rose 7 degrees F.

When that happened, cold water nutrients and organisms stayed too far below the surface to feed the fish, birds and animals that depend on them. Species starved throughout the food chain including crabs, sea stars, salmon, Cassin’s auklets, common murres, and sea lion pups.

Cassin’s auklet takes off (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This month a similar weather pattern has created a similar temperature anomaly. NOAA says it already ranks as the second largest marine heatwave in the northern Pacific Ocean in 40 years — second only to “the Blob.” (see maps above)

If the weather doesn’t change soon, if the winds don’t pick up and stir the sea, then “The Blob” will be back again and it will be bad news for everything in the northeastern Pacific.

Learn what happened during The Blob of 2014-2015 in this vintage article: Death By Warm Water.

(maps from NOAA, photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Watch Out, Miami!

Screenshot from Modeling the Greenland Ice Sheet by NASA Goddard

This summer’s arctic heat wave caused rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet and raised fears that it may disappear in 1,000 years. If it does, our models for future sea level rise are way too low.

That news was eclipsed this week by Hurricane Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas and threats to the East Coast. The Carolinas took a beating but Miami, pictured below during Hurricane Irma, was spared.

Hurricane Irma in Miami Beach, 10 Sept 2017 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, Miami has more to worry about from Greenland than from any hurricane.

On 1 August 2019 CNBC wrote, “The historic heatwave that scorched Europe last week has moved to Greenland, where it’s expected on Thursday to melt away 12 billion tons of water from the ice sheet and irreversibly raise sea levels across the world. … This week’s melt alone is estimated to permanently raise global sea levels by 0.1 millimeters.”

A measurable sea level rise in only one week?! NASA Goddard modeled the future of the Greenland ice sheet in the video below. If all of it melts, the sea will rise 80% more than we expected.

Miami should be especially worried about Greenland. Not only will it add a lot of water to the ocean but it’s location will force the water to rise even more in Miami due to uneven gravitational forces around the globe. Learn more about the relationship between location and sea level rise at Which Glaciers Will Flood Your City?

Map of glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL)
Map of glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL)

Watch out, Miami! Greenland is going to make a splash.

(Greenland screenshot and video from NASA Goddard, photo of Miami Beach during Hurricane Irma from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot of glacial contribution to sea level rise from NASA JPL)

Why Arctic Wildfires Are Different

The intense wildfires in Alaska this summer are different than those we’re used to in the Lower 48. These were sparked by unusual weather, they’re harder to put out because the soil is burning, and they’re causing their own feedback loop.

Heat and lightning are unusual in Alaska but they’ve experienced both this summer. Hot weather not only dries out the landscape but it generates thunderstorms which are rare in Alaska. Anchorage normally has two thunderstorms per year but by mid-June 2019 they’d already had four — and the season had only begun. (*)

When lightning starts a fire in the boreal forest or tundra it doesn’t just burn trees and shrubs. It also burns below the surface because the soil is like peat moss. These “underground” fires are extremely hard to put out.

And finally, the fires cause their own feedback loop. They’re generated by unusually hot weather and their byproducts — smoke and CO2 — result in more hot weather. The smoke deposits black soot on polar ice which makes it melt faster (warming the area) and the CO2 contributes to climate change. As the climate gets hotter it spawns more arctic fires.

This 13 August video from NASA tells more about the arctic wildfires and how they’ll affect us — both now and later.

(*) Lightning near the North Pole is extremely rare; it struck 48 times on 10 August 2019.

p.s. I saw some of these fires from the airplane and rode through the smoke during my Alaskan birding trip 13-23 June 2019.

(video from NASA Goddard)

Ancient Great Lakes

Beach at Presque Isle State Park, Lake Erie (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re planning a Great Lakes beach vacation, here’s something to ponder. Your favorite beach wasn’t there 14,000 years ago.

The Great Lakes formed as ice melted at the end of the last glacial period. They’re now the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth and contain 21% of the world’s surface fresh water.

The Great Lakes (labeled) as seen from satellite (image from Wikimedia Commons)

But 14,000 years ago most of them were under ice and the lakes that existed weren’t in the same place. The western part of Lake Erie was under Lake Maumee. The toe of Lake Michigan was covered by Lake Chicago. As the ice receded the Great lakes took on their present shape.

A lot has changed in the last 14,000 years. Browse the maps below to find your beach at the ancient Great Lakes.

(photo and maps from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

High Tide On The Allegheny

High water at Highland Park Dam, 11 July 2019, 4pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday morning heavy rain caused flash floods, road closures, landslides, basement and first floor flooding, and car accidents in Pittsburgh.

The rain gauge at the airport measured 2.32″ for the day. All but .01″ of it fell in just four hours.

Precipitation at Pittsburgh International Airport, 11 July 2019 (graph from National Weather Service)

There were three huge rain events so thick that you couldn’t see to drive.

  • Half an inch (0.53″) in 50 minutes, 7:05a-7:50a
  • More than a third of an inch (0.38″) in 25 minutes, 7:55-8:17a
  • 1.4 inches in an hour, 10:05a-11:05a

If you want to see what it was like, click here for great footage from WPXI.

Hours later, at 3:30pm, a friend and I made our way from Indiana Township (between Fox Chapel and Cheswick) to Churchill. It took over an hour to get there. The traffic was horrendous and the roads that were open were littered with debris. Nadine, Sandy Creek, and Washington Boulevard were all closed.

But I got two photos of the river in flood.

High tide on the Allegheny!

p.s. This rain didn’t even set a record at the airport though there may have been localized records. My friend Julie had 4″ in her rain gauge in her Squirrel Hill backyard. Sue Vrabel commented below that she had 4.5″ in Churchill.

(photos by Kate St. John, rain graph from the National Weather Service)

Incredibly Hot in Alaska

Alaska high temperature forecast for 7 July 2019 (map from National Weather Service)

Don’t be fooled by the happy green colors on the watery edge of this map. The high temperature in much of Alaska tomorrow will be 85 degrees F.

Alaska is baking under a five-to-seven day heat wave caused by exceptionally strong high pressure that will break most temperature records. Alaskans aren’t prepared for it. The normal high in Anchorage this week should be 67 degrees F but that’s close to what the low will be (61).

The deepest red on the map is in the southwest interior near the Kuskokwim River where the temperature will soar up to 95 degrees. This area suffered last winter, too, when an early thaw shut down transportation to 13,000 people.

Not only will it be hot in Alaska but it will be hard to breathe. Baking temperatures, dry vegetation and lightning have ignited huge forest fires across the state. The Sunday 7am forecast for much of Alaska includes “areas of smoke” shown in gray below.

Alaska Predominant Weather forecast for 7 July 2019 (map from National Weather Service)

There’s only one place left that’s truly cold. That cold dot on the map is the peak of Denali.

Where is it cold in Alaska?

(maps from the National Weather Service; click on the captions to see the graphical forecast for Alaska)

Beat The Heat With Trees

It’s been hot in Pittsburgh lately but nothing like the heat wave that’s sweeping Europe with highs above 100 degrees F. @JeremyDBarrell tweeted a long term solution with a compelling image by Meg Caffin.

Meg Caffin is an urban forest consultant from Australia who provides guidance for cities looking to beat the heat. Her image at top used an infrared camera to show the temperature difference between a paved churchyard and the trees behind it. I’ve made a Fahrenheit translation below. Yes, it’s 113oF on the pavement and only 77oF under the trees.

Tree shade is cooler than building shade because buildings merely block the sun while the trees actually lower the temperature.

Schenley Park near Bartlett entrance (photo by Kate St. John)

Trees cool the air by transpiring. They take up water from the ground and release it from the stomata in their leaves. The release doesn’t usually drip from the leaves as shown below. Instead it evaporates and that’s what cools the air.

Transpiration droplets from a leaf (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Evaporation — changing a liquid to a gas — uses energy. According to the Transpiration blog, “Energy is absorbed into liquid water. This reduces the temperature of the surrounding plant tissue and nearby atmosphere. To evaporate 1 gram of water 590 calories of energy is required.”

So more trees mean less heat.

If that isn’t enough reason to like trees, here’s another benefit. Trees increase your property value as shown in the EPA cost-benefit analysis below.

Trees increase property value far beyond cost of maintenance (EPA)

Plan to plant a tree this fall or plan to keep one. It’s cheaper to keep an existing tree than to plant a new one and mature trees increase property value even more.

Meanwhile if you’re feeling hot right now, visit a local park.

Schenley Park Upper Trail, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beat the heat among the trees.

(embedded Tweet from Jeremy Barrell; infrared heat image by Meg Caffin for the City of Geelong, Australia (Fahrenheit added); transpiring leaf from Wikimedia Commons; photos of Schenley Park by Kate St. John)