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Posts Tagged ‘environment’

My supervisors are so distinguished that they now exist in cartoon form! If that’s not the mark of a successful science communicator, I’m not sure what is.

Here is Katrin:

And here is Matt:

A former supervisor of mine also got a cartoon:

There are 97 cartoons like this over at Skeptical Science, a site which is quickly becoming a force of nature. This campaign reached millions of people through Twitter alone, and was even retweeted by President Obama.

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It has been a very busy few months. Here are some of the things I have done since I last wrote:

  • Moved out of our apartment in Canada
  • Spent three weeks in Ireland with my partner’s family – this was great fun and featured lots of music, tide pools, castles, and sheep
  • Went back to Canada for six days
  • Mastered the art of packing checked luggage and carry-on bags so they are juuust under the weight limit
  • Said a lot of tearful goodbyes
  • Flew to Australia!
  • Discovered Sydney was 11°C and raining
  • Immediately regretted leaving all our warm sweaters behind (“It’s spring in Australia,” we said. “We won’t need these for months yet,” we said)
  • Saw all three animals I had missed the most – bats, lorikeets, and scientists – in the very first day
  • Officially enrolled as a PhD student at UNSW
  • Stumbled into the Sydney real estate market, where rent prices are more than double what we are used to, and only the wealthiest people can afford to buy property
  • Managed to find a great little apartment for rent within our budget
  • Bought out most of IKEA
  • Moved into said apartment (we’re getting good at this moving thing)
  • Helped to finish up 3 papers from the project Katrin, Tim, and I did last year, and 1 paper from the project Steve and I did 3 years ago
  • Read at least a dozen papers on interactions between Antarctic ice shelves and the Southern Ocean – my PhD project will be somewhere in this field
  • Gone out for climate beers (regular beers consumed by climate scientists) and discussed whether the Canadian or the Australian political system is more fundamentally broken
  • Swam in the ocean three times, and discovered that if you put on goggles and look underneath the water you can see FISH swimming around beneath you

Things are finally calming down now, and I should have time to write more frequently. Now that my head is not so full of flight schedules and rental agreements and shopping lists, it has a lot more space for climate science, and for topics to write about here.

I am so, so happy to be back at the CCRC. It is such a friendly, supportive, and enriching place to do research. While I miss my family and the Canadian wildlife and Canadian autumn (definitely not Canadian winter), this is the best time in my life to travel and explore the planet which I spend so much time studying, and hopefully, helping.

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I was scanning my blog stats the other day – partly to see if people were reading my new post on the Blue Mountains bushfires, partly because I just like graphs – when I noticed that an article I wrote nearly two years ago was suddenly getting more views than ever before:

The article in question highlights the scientific inaccuracies of the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, in which global warming leads to a new ice age. Now that I’ve taken more courses in thermodynamics I could definitely expand on the original post if I had the time and inclination to watch the film again…

I did a bit more digging in my stats and discovered that most viewers are reaching this article through Google searches such as “is the day after tomorrow true”, “is the day after tomorrow likely to happen”, and “movie review of a day after tomorrow if it is possible or impossible.” The answers are no, no, and impossible, respectively.

But why the sudden surge in interest? I think it is probably related to the record cold temperatures across much of the United States, an event which media outlets have dubbed the “polar vortex”. I prefer “Arctic barf”.

Part of the extremely cold air mass which covers the Arctic has essentially detached and spilled southward over North America. In other words, the Arctic has barfed on the USA. Less sexy terminology than “polar vortex”, perhaps, but I would argue it is more enlightening.

Greg Laden also has a good explanation:

The Polar Vortex, a huge system of swirling air that normally contains the polar cold air has shifted so it is not sitting right on the pole as it usually does. We are not seeing an expansion of cold, an ice age, or an anti-global warming phenomenon. We are seeing the usual cold polar air taking an excursion.

Note that other regions such as Alaska and much of Europe are currently experiencing unusually warm winter weather. On balance, the planet isn’t any colder than normal. The cold patches are just moving around in an unusual way.

Having grown up in the Canadian Prairies, where we experience daily lows below -30°C for at least a few days each year (and for nearly a month straight so far this winter), I can’t say I have a lot of sympathy. Or maybe I’m just bitter because I never got a day off school due to the cold? But seriously, nothing has to shut down if you plug in the cars at night and bundle up like an astronaut. We’ve been doing it for years.

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During our time in Australia, my partner and I decided on a whim to spend a weekend in the Blue Mountains. This national park, a two-hour train ride west of Sydney, forms part of the Great Dividing Range: a chain of mountains which stretches from north to south across the entire country, separating the vast outback to the west from the narrow strip of coastal rainforest to the east.

For a region so close to Sydney, the Blue Mountains feel surprisingly remote. You can stand at any number of clifftops, gaze out over a seemingly endless stretch of land, and see no sign of civilization whatsoever. Or you can walk down into the valleys between the mountains and explore the rainforest, a vast expanse of ancient gumtrees that’s managed to hide koalas previously thought to have vanished, and possibly even an escaped panther.


Four months later, when we were safely back in Canada, the Blue Mountains bushfires began. It was October, barely even spring in the Southern Hemisphere. To have fires starting so early in the season was virtually unheard of.

The triggers for the fires were decidedly human-caused: arson, a botched army exercise, and sparking power lines. However, unusually hot, dry, and windy conditions allowed the fires to spread far more quickly than they would have in a more normal October.


To get from the clifftops of Echo Point to the walking trails in the valley below, we took the Giant Stairway, which is exactly what it sounds like. Imagine the steepest and narrowest stairway you can manage, cut into the stone cliff and reinforced with metal, and a handrail which you cling to for dear life. Make it 902 stairs long (by my count, so let’s say plus or minus 5) and wind it back and forth around the cliff. After a few minutes walking down the stairway your knees start to buckle, and you require more and longer breaks, but you still can’t see the bottom.

The exhaustion is worth it simply due to the view.

Sometimes we would see swarms of sulfur-crested cockatoos flying over the treetops hundreds of metres below. They looked like tiny white specks at such a distance, but we could still hear them squawking to one another.


The bushfires of 2013 didn’t affect any of the areas we visited in the Blue Mountains – in fact, none of the main tourism regions were damaged. The main losses occurred in residential areas in and around the Blue Mountains. As of October 19th, 208 houses and 40 non-residential buildings had been destroyed.

Despite the huge amount of property loss, there were only two fatalities from the bushfires. This relatively successful outcome was due to mass evacuations organized by the government of New South Wales. At one point a state of emergency was declared, which authorized police to force residents to leave their houses.

As the fires continued to burn out of control, westerly winds blew the smoke and ash right over Sydney. During sunsets the sky over Sydney Harbour turned a bright orange, giving the illusion of a city built on the surface of Mars.


I had heard about lyre birds, widely considered to be among the best mimics of the animal kingdom, many times before. In an elaborate courtship display, the male lyre bird perfectly imitates the songs of nearly every other bird in the forest, one after another like some kind of avian pop-music mashup. Lyre birds blow mockingbirds right out of the water.

Footage from the BBC of a lyre bird imitating camera shutters and chainsaws seemed too good to be true, but its authenticity was bolstered by a similar story from my friend at the climate lab in Sydney. Her neighbours had been doing renovations, and when they were finished the construction equipment went away but the sounds kept going. That’s when they discovered the lyre bird living in the garden.

We saw three or four lyre birds while hiking in the valley that weekend, but for the most part they just wandered around the forest floor, combing through the leaf litter with an outstretched foot and keeping their beaks firmly shut. It was winter in Australia, after all – not courtship season for most birds. On the last day of hiking, we sat by the side of the trail for a rest and a drink of water, while my partner quizzed me on the local bird calls.

“What kind of bird is making that song?”

“An eastern whip-bird, I think.

“Hang on, it just changed into a kookaburra.

“And now it’s a currawong?”

A few minutes later, a male lyre bird strolled out onto the path ahead of us, showing off his fantastic tail feathers and looking extremely pleased with himself.


It is well known among scientists that human-caused climate change increases the risk of severe bushfires. Spells of hot weather will obviously become more common as the planet warms, but so will prolonged droughts, especially in subtropical regions like Australia. Add an initial trigger, like a lightning strike or an abandoned campfire, and you have the perfect recipe for a bushfire.

The current Australian government, which has a history of questionable statements on climate change, really doesn’t want to believe this. Prime Minister Tony Abbott asserted that “these fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they’re a function of life in Australia”, while Environment Minister Greg Hunt cited Wikipedia during a similar statement. I was actually heartened by these events: the ensuing public outcry convinced me that Australians, by and large, do not buy into their government’s indifference on this issue.

It came as a surprise to nobody in the climate science community, and probably nobody in Australia, that 2013 was Australia’s warmest year on record. The previous record, set in 2005, was exceeded by a fairly significant 0.17°C. Even more remarkable was the fact that 2013 was an ENSO-neutral year. For Australia to shatter this temperature record without the help of El Niño indicates that something else (*cough cough climate change*) is at work.

Would the Blue Mountains bushfires have been so devastating without the help of human-caused climate change? In a cooler and wetter October, closer to the historical average, would the initial fire triggers have developed into anything significant? We’ll never know for sure. What we can say, though, is that bushfires like these will only become more common as climate change continues. This is what the future will look like.

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Now that the academic summer is over, I have left Australia and returned home to Canada. It is great to be with my friends and family again, but I really miss the ocean and the giant monster bats. Not to mention the lab: after four months as a proper scientist, it’s very hard to be an undergrad again.

While I continue to settle in, move to a new apartment, and recover from jet lag (which is way worse in this direction!), here are a few pieces of reading to tide you over:

Scott Johnson from Ars Technica wrote a fabulous piece about climate modelling, and the process by which scientists build and test new components. The article is accurate and compelling, and features interviews with two of my former supervisors (Steve Easterbrook and Andrew Weaver) and lots of other great communicators (Gavin Schmidt and Richard Alley, to name a few).

I have just started reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. So far, it is one of the best pieces of science writing I have ever read. As well as being funny and easy to understand, it makes me excited about areas of science I haven’t studied since high school.

Finally, my third and final paper from last summer in Victoria was published in the August edition of Journal of Climate. The full text (subscription required) is available here. It is a companion paper to our recent Climate of the Past study, and compares the projections of EMICs (Earth System Models of Intermediate Complexity) when forced with different RCP scenarios. In a nutshell, we found that even after anthropogenic emissions fall to zero, it takes a very long time for CO2 concentrations to recover, even longer for global temperatures to start falling, and longer still for sea level rise (caused by thermal expansion alone, i.e. neglecting the melting of ice sheets) to stabilize, let alone reverse.

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The back gardens of Mayflower, Arkansas aren’t looking too good:

spill

Yes, that’s oil. Canadian oil, no less. You’re welcome.

I’ve heard surprisingly little about this event, which occurred when an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured on Friday. It appears that the press have limited access while the cleanup crews are at work. National Geographic had a good piece, though.

Call me cynical, but I think the Canadian media are purposely keeping quiet on this one. It’s a very inconvenient time for a pipeline to burst, given that all levels of government and industry are pushing for Keystone, Northern Gateway, Energy East, etc., etc.

News of this event is largely relying on Mayflower citizens leveraging social media. There’s no way to verify their photos and videos, but they’re striking nonetheless. Here’s a video of the situation on a residential street – note the lack of cleanup crews.

The oil is going straight into the storm drain, the man in the video says, which makes me shudder. I don’t know anything about Mayflower’s stormwater system, but where I live those storm drains are about three steps removed from the Red River. Once oil got in there, I can’t imagine it ever getting out.

I find it puzzling that the negative impacts of pipelines are so often catalogued as “environmentalists’ problems” in the Canadian media – here’s a typical example. In reality, they’re everyone’s problems. Environmentalists (as much as I detest that label) are just the people who realize it. We are not a special interest group; we represent everyone. When it comes to disasters, from short-term spills like the one in Mayflower to millennial-scale impacts like climate change, Canadian oil will affect everyone indiscriminately.

Side note: Sorry I have been so absurdly quiet recently. I am busy building two climate models – just small ones for term projects, but so enjoyable that everything else is getting neglected. I’ll be posting much more on that in about a month.

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Here in the northern mid-latitudes (much of Canada and the US, Europe, and the northern half of Asia) our weather is governed by the jet stream. This high-altitude wind current, flowing rapidly from west to east, separates cold Arctic air (to the north) from warmer temperate air (to the south). So on a given day, if you’re north of the jet stream, the weather will probably be cold; if you’re to the south, it will probably be warm; and if the jet stream is passing over you, you’re likely to get rain or snow.

The jet stream isn’t straight, though; it’s rather wavy in the north-south direction, with peaks and troughs. So it’s entirely possible for Calgary to experience a cold spell (sitting in a trough of the jet stream) while Winnipeg, almost directly to the east, has a heat wave (sitting in a peak). The farther north and south these peaks and troughs extend, the more extreme these temperature anomalies tend to be.

Sometimes a large peak or trough will hang around for weeks on end, held in place by certain air pressure patterns. This phenomenon is known as “blocking”, and is often associated with extreme weather. For example, the 2010 heat wave in Russia coincided with a large, stationary, long-lived peak in the polar jet stream. Wildfires, heat stroke, and crop failure ensued. Not a pretty picture.

As climate change adds more energy to the atmosphere, it would be naive to expect all the wind currents to stay exactly the same. Predicting the changes is a complicated business, but a recent study by Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus made headway on the polar jet stream. Using North American and North Atlantic atmospheric reanalyses (models forced with observations rather than a spin-up) from 1979-2010, they found that Arctic amplification – the faster rate at which the Arctic warms, compared to the rest of the world – makes the jet stream slower and wavier. As a result, blocking events become more likely.

Arctic amplification occurs because of the ice-albedo effect: there is more snow and ice available in the Arctic to melt and decrease the albedo of the region. (Faster-than-average warming is not seen in much of Antarctica, because a great deal of thermal inertia is provided to the continent in the form of strong circumpolar wind and ocean currents.) This amplification is particularly strong in autumn and winter.

Now, remembering that atmospheric pressure is directly related to temperature, and pressure decreases with height, warming a region will increase the height at which pressure falls to 500 hPa. (That is, it will raise the 500 hPa “ceiling”.) Below that, the 1000 hPa ceiling doesn’t rise very much, because surface pressure doesn’t usually go much above 1000 hPa anyway. So in total, the vertical portion of the atmosphere that falls between 1000 and 500 hPa becomes thicker as a result of warming.

Since the Arctic is warming faster than the midlatitudes to the south, the temperature difference between these two regions is smaller. Therefore, the difference in 1000-500 hPa thickness is also smaller. Running through a lot of complicated physics equations, this has two main effects:

  1. Winds in the east-west direction (including the jet stream) travel more slowly.
  2. Peaks of the jet stream are pulled farther north, making the current wavier.

Also, both of these effects reinforce each other: slow jet streams tend to be wavier, and wavy jet streams tend to travel more slowly. The correlation between relative 1000-500 hPa thickness and these two effects is not statistically significant in spring, but it is in the other three seasons. Also, melting sea ice and declining snow cover on land are well correlated to relative 1000-500 hPa thickness, which makes sense because these changes are the drivers of Arctic amplification.

Consequently, there is now data to back up the hypothesis that climate change is causing more extreme fall and winter weather in the mid-latitudes, and in both directions: unusual cold as well as unusual heat. Saying that global warming can cause regional cold spells is not a nefarious move by climate scientists in an attempt to make every possible outcome support their theory, as some paranoid pundits have claimed. Rather, it is another step in our understanding of a complex, non-linear system with high regional variability.

Many recent events, such as record snowfalls in the US during the winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11, are consistent with this mechanism – it’s easy to see that they were caused by blocking in the jet stream when Arctic amplification was particularly high. They may or may not have happened anyway, if climate change wasn’t in the picture. However, if this hypothesis endures, we can expect more extreme weather from all sides – hotter, colder, wetter, drier – as climate change continues. Don’t throw away your snow shovels just yet.

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