Category Archives: Climate Change

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)

The Poster Child For Climate Change

Surface air temperature patterns across the Arctic in 2018 (map from climate.gov, annotated to show Alaska)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Arrive in Nome, 20 June 2019

Because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, Alaska copes with climate change every day.

Record heat waves, low sea ice, eroding coastlines, melting permafrost, disappearing lakes, ice-road failures, and declines in fish, bird and wildlife populations. Here are just a few examples of what Alaska is dealing with:

Ice road failures:

An ice road in Alaska, dog sled on the berm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Winter is the time to go places in Alaska when the frozen lakes and rivers become highways, but this year the ice was thin and it broke up earlier than expected. There were accidents at the ice failures, people died, and villages were cut off because the ice is their only road. Every winter the Kuskokwim River becomes a 200-mile ice highway that links 13,000 people in southwestern Alaska. The New York Times described how people cope now that the ice is thin: Alaska Relies On Ice. What Happens When It Can’t Be Trusted?

Lack of sea ice makes a village disappear:

Aerial view of Shishmaref, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Erosion at Shishmaref, Alaska, 1950-2012 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The town of Shishmaref, Alaska is disappearing. Perched on an island in the Chukchi Sea, the sea ice that used to protect it from huge waves in autumn storms is forming too late now to do any good. The new seawall is a only temporary fix. The island is shrinking. In 2016 the villagers voted to leave the island but there’s no money to do it — and so they stay. Read more + video at CNN’s Tragedy of a village built on ice.

Wildlife declines, seabird die-offs:

Caribou in Alaska (photo from NPS Climate Change Response on Flickr)

An international study of reindeer and caribou across the Arctic shows that almost all of the herds are in decline: 2018 Arctic Report Card: Reindeer and Caribou continue to decline.

In PLOS One, a recent study of a massive seabird die-off in 2016 indicates that unusually warm ocean temperatures lowered the food supply and lead to starvation for 3,100 to 8,800 seabirds, especially tufted puffins. This group washed ashore at St. Paul Island, Bering Sea in October 2016.

Seabird carcasses found on North Beach, St. Paul Island, Alaska, 17 October 2016 (photo from PLOS One)

Thawing permafrost, combustible lakes:

Thawing permafrost causes many problems. When the frost melts the land slumps and slides. This slump engulfed trees and created new cliffs.

New cliffs and delta, 1000 feet long, as permafrost thaws into the river (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When the land subsidies, trees collapse and die (called drunken trees). The area becomes a bog.

Trees die, bogs form as permafrost thaws, Innoko NWR, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Methane formerly trapped in the permafrost bubbles up in lakes (photo) with potentially explosive results (video).

Methane bubbles in a frozen lake, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska is experiencing so many effects of warming that it could be a poster child for climate change.

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

p.s. Yesterday on the boat trip at Kenai Fjords National Park we saw some of the glaciers in this news article, especially Northwestern Glacier: https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/repeat-photography-of-alaskan-glaciers/

Is It Spring Yet?

Honeysuckle leaves in the City of Pittsburgh, 16 March 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 March 2019

Today is the astronomical First Day of Spring when the sun crosses the celestial equator at 5:58pm EDT. But is it Spring yet? It depends on where you live.

The USA National Phenology Network tracks spring across the continental U.S. based on first leaf out conditions for honeysuckle (Lonerica) and first bloom conditions for lilacs (Syringa vulgaris). The plants are non-native, and honeysuckle is invasive, but they make good indicators because they’re early responders to springtime warmth.

Monday’s animated Spring Leaf Index (18 March 2019) shows that leaf out was ahead of schedule through late February but fell behind in northern Virginia, the southern Great Plains, and the Pacific Northwest when cold weather hit in early March.

Spring Leaf Index as of 18 March 2019 (animation from USA NPN)

According to the model, spring hasn’t reached Pittsburgh yet but I’m conducting my own Leaf Out Survey in my neighborhood. I took the honeysuckle photos below on 11 March and 16 March 2019. Both were cold days after a spurt of exceptionally warm weather. The tiny leaves on the right show the effect of 77 degrees F on March 14!

Honeysuckle leaf out, City of Pittsburgh, 11 March and 16 March 2019 (photos by Kate St. John)

Do you have leaves in your neighborhood yet? Is spring on time?

Follow spring’s progress at the USA National Phenology Network. For blooming times click here for the latest Spring Bloom map.

(animated map from the USA National Phenology Network. photos by Kate St. John)

Extinction Capital of the World

  • Kioea. Last seen in 1859.

By now in my series on Hawaii you’ve probably noticed that the rarest birds on the islands are threatened with extinction. Sadly this situation is normal. So many Hawaiian species have gone extinct and so many are on the edge today that Hawaii is known as the Extinction Capital of the World. The group of forest birds called Hawaiian honeycreepers are a case in point.

Five million years ago a flock of finches similar to redpolls (Carpodacus erythrinus) arrived from Asia, flying non-stop for more than 4,000 miles. When they arrived, Oahu and the Big Island didn’t exist, but over millions of years they spread out and evolved into 59 species of Hawaiian honeycreepers with a wide variety of beaks for exploiting Hawaii’s food sources. They diversified more than Darwin’s finches.

Each bird was perfectly evolved to survive Hawaii’s dangers but had no defense against off-island threats. Their exposure came with the arrival of humans. We came in two waves.

Polynesians arrived in Hawaii around 400AD and were here alone for 1,400 years. During that period 30% of the Hawaiian honeycreepers went extinct.

In 1778 Captain James Cook was the first European to see Hawaii, prompting immigration from the rest of the world. Since then, in just 240 years, another 39% of the honeycreepers have gone extinct. 18 species remain but six are so critically endangered they may be gone soon.

The slideshow above shows a fraction of what we’ve lost. The last bird, the black-faced honeycreeper or poo’uli (Melamprosops phaeosoma), is still listed as critically endangered with 1 to 49 individuals left on Earth. However, none have been seen since 26 November 2004. It’s probably gone.

Hawaii’s endemic birds go extinct so easily because of …

  • Habitat loss: Humans cleared the forest for settlements. Some species had such a small range or specialized food that when their patch was gone, they were too.
  • Introduced species, especially rats, cats and mongoose: The birds don’t know to move their nests out of reach.
  • Avian malaria and avian pox: Honeycreepers have no immunity.
  • Mosquitoes: Avian diseases, carried by mosquitoes, arrived with introduced birds. Honeycreepers don’t know to brush mosquitoes away. They catch malaria easily and it kills them.
  • Climate change: There’s safety from mosquitoes at high elevation but climate change is heating the mountains. The mosquitoes are moving uphill.

Avian diseases caught from mosquitoes are the big problem. Fortunately there’s a silver lining. One of the honeycreepers, the Hawai’ian amakihi, can now live with avian malaria and is expanding its range within mosquito territory.

This 27-minute video, made in 2005 by Susanne Clara Bard, tells the story of the Hawai’ian amakihi’s survival. Though this video is a lot longer than I normally post, it’s worth even a short look to learn why Hawaiian birds face so many challenges.

The Hawai’ian amakihi evolved to survive malaria in only 200 years.

(images from Wikimedia Commons; click on the links to see the species account at Wikipedia)

Tour Day 9: Leaving the Big Island of Hawai’i for home