Thoughts on the ocean, the environment, the universe and everything from nearly a mile high.

Panorama of The Grand Tetons From the top of Table Mountain, Wyoming © Alan Holyoak, 2011

Friday, March 30, 2012

How things animal videos from NPR's Science Friday

I'm often in awe at how the world works.  I'm also amazed at the creativity scientists show as they find ways to answer interesting questions, like why we sometimes slip on ice.  The researchers didn't use people in their studies though...they had to find another biped, something else that walks on two legs...guinea hens.

This first video shows how scientists things that move, and how much energy they use as they do.  Walking, sure, hopping, sure, but how can you collect physiological data on a bird in flight?  Check it out!

The second video has made the rounds, but it's a real goodie!

In this one someone is interested in finding out how the octopus is able to take camouflage to a whole new level.

You will probably want/need to watch this film more than once.  To start with...before you run the video, where's the octopus?  It's right in plain sight.  BTW, I just showed this to my son, A HS senior, and his reaction was, "What the HECK!?  Play that again!"

The really incredible thing is that an octopus can't see in color, and it's still able to match its surroundings' texture and color nearly perfectly...all by sight!  Keep in mind that the video is not digitally enhanced...octopus actually do this!

Really cool stuff!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"The Heat is On" - Arctic Sea Ice Melt 2012 Is Now Underway

Winter 2012 wasn't that severe for most parts of the country, but don't you still love signs of spring?

One sure sign of Spring is the start of the annual sea ice melt in the Arctic Ocean.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC; reported this week that the Arctic Ocean Sea Ice melt is now underway.  Or, at least, that it looks like we've reached maximum sea ice extent.  Next stop? Summer!

I love maps and graphs - data rock!  Here is a map from the NSIDC showing maximum sea ice cover this winter.

The orange lines show the average extent of sea ice cover for the years 1979-2000.  The white area shows the current sea ice extent with at least 15% sea ice cover.  

This was an interesting sea ice year.  If you look at the map you'll see that we have much more sea ice than average in the Bering Sea, west of Alaska and north of the Aleutians.  At the same time there was not as much ice as usual in the Barents Sea north of Scandinavia and Russia.  Remember the tough time ships had reaching Nome, AK, this year?  That's because of all the sea ice.  

So, how does this winter's maximum extent stack up against recent years?

2011-12 sea ice cover is shown in light blue in the graph above.  

The maximum sea ice extent for this winter didn't reach historical averages...again.  But this year it got within about 600,000 square kilometers of the 1979-2000 average sea ice maximum.  Even so, the NSIDC reports that this year's sea ice extent is the 9th lowest sea ice extent reported since 1979.  You might also be interested to know that all of the past nine years, 2004-2012, are the nine lowest sea ice maximum extents on record.  

So what!?  

Here's what this means.  First, less ice is forming now than it used to.  Second, this means that the edges of the sea ice melts away from coastlines sooner,  This makes it tougher for animals that need the pack ice to get there - like polar bears.  This is especially tough on females and their young cubs.  Mothers and cubs often aren't able to move far from the den and move out onto the ice until the ice melt is well underway.  By this time bears often can't reach the ice pack unless they do a LOT of swimming.  In recent years polar bears have been been seen swimming across huge stretches of open water.  Bears have reportedly been spotted 100s of miles from land or ice...but this takes a toll, especially on cubs.  Sadly, increasing numbers of cubs aren't making it...they fatigue and drown.  It's even getting tougher for adults to make this kind of swim.

Photo - Eric Lefranc Freelance

Polar bear - Ursus maritimus - Olga Strait, Svalbard, Norway - Mother and cub trapped on a little ice floe drifting 12 miles from the nearest coast in Olga Strait. Polar bears are usually good swimmers however the cubs can not swim for so long and will probably not make it. (

Polar bears need to pack ice to hunt for their main prey - seals.  The seals live on the ice year round and give birth to their pups in dens under the surface snow.  This is what bears are looking for.  But if the ice is too thin or short-lived both bears and seals have a hard time.  And that's just the effect on these animals.  A bigger effect is the role that sea ice plays in something called the albedo.

The albedo of an object refers to its ability to absorb or reflect light.  

A perfectly black body will absorb all light that strikes it, and we see black.  If it is perfectly white it will reflect all light and it looks brilliant white.  

So what!?

When the Arctic Ocean is covered by sea ice it is closer to white and reflects most of the light that strikes it.  This keeps the Arctic colder than it would otherwise be, but, as the ice melts dark seawater is exposed, and because it is so dark it absorbs most of the light that strikes it.  This can warm the water, melt more ice, and - worse case scenario, eventually warm the Arctic Ocean seafloor.  

Why is this such a bid deal?  Scientists have discovered that some areas of the Arctic Oceans sea floor is actually permafrost - frozen sediment - that contains methane hydrate.  Methane hydrate is methane trapped in ice.  Methane is a greenhouse gas. If the Arctic seafloor warms enough the methane will be released and the Arctic Ocean will "burp" methane into the atmosphere, accelerating warming even more.  

This is a model of methane hydrate.  The methane is the green and gray molecule in the middle, and the red and white molecules are water frozen into ice, trapping the methane inside.  

Methane hydrate is really interesting stuff.  It can, for example, burn...

The white stuff is ice, and the methane is released and burns as the ice melts.  Similarly, methane will be released by sediments in the Arctic Ocean sea floor if the sediment warms enough for the ice to melt.  This photo shows methane being released underwater.  

Bears and ice and methane, oh my!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Reflections on climate change

I teach a course on climate change. (If you haven't figured this out yet, you're just not paying attention - come on people!).  Anyway, my students are mainly non-science majors, and that makes this adventure even more exciting.

One of the challenges of teaching this class is that some of my students get the mistaken idea that I "like" climate change and "hope" global warming is happening.  Eh!?  You'd have to be nuts to want that...who in their right mind would want global warming and its effects?  Granted, I live in a northern tier state so warming wouldn't be all bad locally, but globally!?  No way!

Another challenge is that my brain is routinely stuck in a scientific rut where I constantly experience the bizarre desire to want to find out exactly what's happening and why - data, data, data - strange I know, but that's what graduate school and a couple of decades of teaching can do to a guy.  Non-scientists, however, (especially in the USA) live in a media-rich world where sound bites and buzz rather than data creates opinion.  So you see the dilemma.  It keeps life interesting in a sort of east-meets-west kind of way.  By the end of the semester though, I have made some progress in helping my students see what's happening.  How do I know?

For example, last semester I had two students who were heavy duty "Tea Party" guys.  They were both openly skeptical and occasionally confrontational (but not belligerent) about climate change.  They made it clear that they thought global warming was either a hoax or totally blown out of proportion.  At the end of the semester though these guys came to see me at different times and for different reasons.  During our chats and without prompting they hung their heads and confessed that "There really is something to this global warming thing"...Ah success!!

These two guys epitomize the state of that prevails in the USA.  So where does this misunderstanding come from?  The combination of American media, politics, and deep-pocketed special interest groups.  The fact is that there is overwhelming consensus in the scientific community about climate change.  But politics and special interest groups continue to use PR and media messages to cloud the water and keep the reality of this consensus clouded as long as possible.  The current effort to cloud the general public's understanding of climate change is comparable to the tobacco industry's strategy to cloud the scientific message about confirmed links between tobacco and various forms of cancer over the past 60 years, and for which the tobacco industry was convicted on conspiracy and racketeering charges in 2006.  The tobacco industry appealed, of course, but the the original ruling was upheld in May 2011.
( )

If you want read about the tactics small groups of well-connected people use to misdirect public opinion and  cloud the issues on topics like climate change, I've got a recommendation for you: read the book "Merchants of Doubt" by the science historian Naomi Oreskes. ( )  It's an eye-opener!


The work of these "message clouders" is effective.  They use PR campaigns, editorials in sympathetic newspapers and other media outlets to promote their message.  They do not engage in scientific discussion, research, or publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Sadly their methods work.  How do we know?  Climate scientists consistently and repeatedly demonstrate connections between human-produced carbon emissions and global warming in thousands of peer-reviewed publications each year, but this information is not communicated very effectively to the general public.  In the meantime, the slick PR machines of the contrarians spin out message after message of doubt in those results, and the public buys it.  Again, how do we know?  The American general public is expressing lower levels of concern and acceptance of this scientific conclusion than ever.  It's heartbreaking.

Here are some results from a  2011 GALLUP poll on climate change...
( )
...48% of Americans said that they believed the seriousness of global warming was exaggerated in the news. This is up nearly 20% from 30% in 1998 and 2006 (see the graph below):

1997-2010 Trend: Percentage of Americans Who Believe the Seriousness of Global Warming Is Generally Exaggerated

Then when people were asked whether they thought global warming had 1) Already started or would soon; 2) That it would occur within their lifetime; or 3) That it would not occur during their lifetime or not at all, 35% of respondents said that they thought it would not happen within their lifetime or even at all!  Yikes!

1997-2010 Trend: When Will the Effects of Global Warming Begin to Happen?

Fewer people also accept the conclusion that human activities affect climate.  Last year nearly 50% or respondents said they thought climate change was driven only by natural causes.  Sigh...the testable, confirmed scientific message is getting lost's in the muddied water stirred up by the PR machines.

2003-2010 Trend: Are Increases in the Earth's Temperature Over the Last Century Due to Human Activities or Natural Changes?

Because these numbers are slipping farther all the time, I feel compelled to continue to teach and share thoughts about our climate.  Fortunately, I see a great deal of change in my students' perceptions about climate as they learn the science and see the data.  The bottom line is that climate change is affecting the atmosphere, the land, and the ocean.  Its bigger than pollution alone. ozone depletion alone, water issues alone, it's bigger than, well, any of our current environmental challenges, because it's global and will affect everyone.

Here's to ongoing efforts to communicate the messages of science. Cheers!.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Boring! My posts...NOT the book

I've been reading a REALLY good book called "Don't be Such a Scientist" by Randy Olson.  The subtitle is: "Talking Substance in an Age of Style."

I've been talking tons of substance, but without virtually any's to the hopeful demise of deathly boring postings!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Climate Change 3: The Atmosphere

This is the third installment in my series on understanding climate change.  In order to really understand climate and climate change, you need to understand something about the structure of the atmosphere and the ocean.  This posting focuses on the composition and structure of the atmosphere.

Composition of the Modern Atmosphere

Our atmosphere has gone through significant changes since it was formed, eventually producing the atmosphere we have today.  The composition of our modern atmosphere is shown below:

Water VaporH2O0%1%2%3%4%
Carbon dioxideCO20.033%
NeonNe18.20 parts per million
HeliumHe5.20 parts per million
KryptonKr1.10 parts per million
Sulfur dioxideSO21.00 parts per million
MethaneCH42.00 parts per million
HydrogenH20.50 parts per million
Nitrous oxideN2O0.50 parts per million
XenonXe0.09 parts per million
OzoneO30.07 parts per million
Nitrogen dioxideNO20.02 parts per million
IodineI20.01 parts per million
Carbon monoxideCOtrace

(Atmospheric data courtesy of

Water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and carbon monoxide are all greenhouse gases. A greenhouse gas is a substance in the air that can absorb light as it enters the atmosphere.  Different greenhouse gases absorb different spectra of light.

* - Water vapor is an extremely important greenhouse gas and it plays a significant role in climate, but it is different than other greenhouse gases because it cannot accumulate in the atmosphere beyond local relative humidity thresholds.  Once the relative humidity gets high enough water vapor condenses and falls as precipitation.  BTW, the average length of time it takes for all of the water vapor in that atmosphere to be replaced is between 5-9 days.  Other greenhouse gases don't do this, they accumulate in the air.

** - The amount of ozone in the troposphere varies greatly with proximity to industrialized areas.  Plus, ozone is a reactive gas with other atmospheric compounds like CO2 and CH4, removing them from the atmosphere.  Alas, ozone is itself harmful to us, so a strategy of producing ozone to remove other greenhouse gases is not advisable.  Ozone in the stratosphere, however, is extremely beneficial to us since it absorbs UV radiation that can cause things like skin cancer and cataracts in our eyes.  But human-produced ozone tends to stay in the lower troposphere.

Physical Structure of the Atmosphere

There are four successive layers of the atmosphere, starting from the ground and increasing in elevation they are the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, and the thermosphere.

The troposphere extends from the surface to an altitude of ~12km in altitude (~8 miles); it's thinnest at the poles.  About 80% of the mass of the atmosphere and 99% of all water vapor is found in this layer.  The average global temperature of the troposphere is about 15oC (~60oF) at the Earth's surface, cools to about -50-60oC at the top of the troposphere.  The troposphere is warmest near the surface because this is where greenhouse gas concentrations are highest.  Virtually all weather takes place in the troposphere.  The creation of surface winds and large-scale movement of air masses in the troposphere will be the topic of another posting.

The stratosphere is between ~12-50km (~8-32 miles) in altitude.  Most of the remaining 20% of the mass of the atmosphere is found here, as is most of the rest of the water vapor.  The ozone layer that protects us from dangerous UV radiation is found here.  The lower part of the stratosphere is warmest (this is where most of the ozone is), and it cools to about 0oF at its highest altitude.  Ozone is formed naturally here as O2 molecules are split apart by energy from the sun and individual oxygen atoms bond with molecules of O2 to form O3 (ozone).  While ozone is extremely effective at absorbing UV radiation, other wavelengths of light are not captured here.

The mesosphere is between ~50-85km (~30-55 miles) in altitude.  Though atmospheric concentration is dwindling greatly at these heights, there are still enough molecules here that this is where most meteorites burn up producing "shooting stars."  Since there are fewer air molecules the higher you go in this part of the atmosphere less light is captured, and less heat is released, so the higher you go in this layer, the colder it is (see the figure above).

The thermosphere is between ~85-140km (~55-87 miles) in altitude.  There is so little atmosphere in this layer that if you were there you would be subjected to the full intensity of the sun's energy.  This is why the top of the thermosphere is the hottest layer in the atmosphere at ~60oC (~140oF).  Though the thermosphere is the top layer of the atmosphere, the space shuttle flies at even higher altitudes (~300-530km (~190-330 miles).

OK, so what!?  You need to know something about the atmosphere if you want to understand climate, because climate is determined by long term averages of weather events including precipitation, relative humidity, temperature, and seasonality.  That's why this matters.  Enjoy!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Thoughts on the Sendai, Japan, earthquake and tsumani

This was originally posted in March 2011, and is being reposted in commemoration of this terrible tragedy.

Thoughts on the Sendai, Japan, earthquake and tsunami

I used to live in Japan and experienced my first earthquakes while I was there. The good thing about that is that I know that Japanese construction codes and building practices require that buildings there, large and small, are good at shaking without failing when the earth shakes.

The earthquake that shook that country last Friday (9.0 on the Richter scale - two magnitudes more powerful than the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake that hit the San Francisco/Santa Cruz area in 1989) pushed the country right to the edge of its limits, and in some cases beyond. The Sendai earthquake's epicenter was about 80 miles east of northern Honshu Island and at a depth of about 24 miles. Fortunately we have heard no reports of large buildings collapsing, though there are confirmed reports that some skyscrapers swung as much as 20' from side to side during the quake. Unfortunately, however, the quake triggered a massive tsunami.

There have been more than 150 aftershocks over a very large region. The map below shows the locations and relative strengths of aftershocks (so far).

Sadly, NPR reported this morning that the death toll from the earthquake and devastating tsunami that followed is now estimated to be around 10,000.

Scientists have reported that this earthquake was so powerful and that the slippage significant enough that stationary GPS reference location points in Japan shifted 8 feet (2.4 meters) - that's right, the entire country shifted 8 feet. Scientists also discovered that the angle of the axis of the earth shifted by about 4" (10 cm).

The resulting tsnuami waves devastated the northeast coast of Japan's main island of Honshu, striking near the large, coastal city of Sendai. The main tsunami wave that struck there was 23 feet (7 meters) tall. The size and force of that wave caused it to smash through low-lying coastal regions, destroying structures, farms, and killing ~19,000 people. This image from NOAA (The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) shows the wave height of the Sendai earthquake tsunami as it moved across the Pacific Ocean.

If that's not enough, some nuclear power plants in Japan suffered damage, and there are justified concerns that reactors are leaking radioactive materials. Recent reports state that over 180,000 people have been evacuated from areas where damaged reactors are located. One reactor has suffered two massive explosions, and there are further concerns about the possibility of core melt-downs.

My heart goes out to the people of Japan in these times of terrible natural disasters.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Climate Change 2: The only constant is change

I think the best word to use to describe the Earth is "Change".  Mountains are pushed up and eroded away, temperatures heat and cool, sea levels rise and fall, and even continents get pushed around.  In this posting I focus on one particular kind of change that has occurred during Earth's history - atmospheric change.

When the Earth first formed its atmosphere contained hydrogen, helium, methane, ammonia and water vapor, but no free oxygen!  That atmosphere was so hot (130-300oC) and produced so much pressure (256 atmospheres) that all the water on the planet was water vapor.  By comparison, Earth's atmosphere today has 1.0 atmosphere of pressure at sea level and an average temperature of about 15oC.  So, getting back to our story...

About 100 million years later Earth's atmosphere had changed and was made mainly of water vapor, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, and methane.  It was still too hot for liquid water, and there was no free oxygen.

Around 4by (billion years) ago the atmosphere cooled that it rained, and rained and rained and rained, for 1000s of years...and filled the oceans.  Within "only" another half a billion years, life showed up - prokaryotes (bacteria), and a group called cyanobacteria could do photosynthesis!

These are living species of cyanobacteria:

As I'm sure everyone recalls from those heady, exciting days in biology class, during photosynthesis sugar is made combining carbon dioxide and water, oh, and a waste product is also produced - oxygen.  The equation looks like this CO2 + H2O = C6H12O6 + O2.  (Apologies to the chemical purists out there - I didn't balance the equation, heh heh).

Cyanbacteria sat there doing their thing (photosynthesis and making more cyanobacteria) for a LONG time, and oxygen gradually accumulated in the atmosphere.  The presence of oxygen changed things...lots of things.  For one thing, oxygen is a toxic element and it killed most of the bacteria of the day.  Doesn't it seem weird that oxygen probably caused Earth's first major extinction event?

It took from  3.5by until about 1.8by for oxygen to make up 2-5% of the atmosphere.  While oxygen concentrations increased other other gases decreased: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane.  The atmosphere wasn't the only thing changing either.  By about 1.5by other kinds of life show up - eukaryotic life.  Eukaryotic cells have a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles, like mitochondria and chloroplasts.  Plus about this time the oceans reached their current degree of salinity (saltiness).

The atmosphere stayed pretty much the same between 1.8by and 0.8by ago, and this time period is referred to as "The Boring Billion" years.  Then, however, things really started to happen!  Between 0.8by and 0.5by oxygen levels climbed to 10-20% of the atmosphere, and plants and animals showed up.  The temperature of the Earth, however, fluctuated between hot-house conditions and ice-ball conditions.

Around 350 million year ago there was a massive spike of oxygen in the atmosphere.  It made up about 35% of the atmosphere.  This spike occurred during the time when Earth's first massive forests 400-300 appeared.  These forests then died off and formed some of the huge coal reserves that we use today.

This is an artist's rendition of those forests.  Image courtesy of the Smithsonian [].

View of land above

Around 300 million years ago atmospheric oxygen made up about 21% of the atmosphere, and it's been pretty constant ever since.

So what's the bottom line about Earth's atmosphere?  Like everything else on changes!

These two links take you to parts one and two of a fantastic video based on The National Geographic Society's production, "The Story of Earth".  It has background music but no narration.  The video depicts our current scientific interpretation of the history of this planet we call home.  Enjoy.

And here's part 2, just in case you wanted to see the rest...I know I did!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Another movie monster exposed...the giant worms on King Kong

Remember that really gruesome scene from the most recent version of King Kong (starring Jack Black) that took place at the bottom of the slimy gorge where an unsuspecting crew member  was attacked by giant worms with massive hooks around their mouths?

(I used to have a film clip of the worms here, but it was too much, so I deleted it.)

The creature creators this time may well have gotten their inspiration from a small worm that lives in the intestines of other animals, uses their hooks to hang onto the wall of the intestine, and absorbs food from the predigested food moving past doesn't even have a mouth or a stomach.

This small parasite is called an Acanthacephalan, commonly known as a spiny-headed worm.  Over 1000 different species have been identified.  Most species I've seen are only about one centimeter (less than 1/2") long, but the biggest ones can actually be over 20" in length.

Here's what an spiny-headed worm looks like:

Note the many hooks on the structure protruding out the animal at the left side of the photo.  It's just an organ used for attachment...not feeding.  Here's a drawing showing a little more detail:

These images can be found at Wikipedia under the entry for "Acanthacephalan".  If you take a close look you will see that these animals do not have a mouth or a gut.  That's the beauty of living in a constant supply of predigested food.  There's no need for THESE animals to attack and kill unsuspecting sailors!

Once again, we are probably not quite as clever as we think we are...even so, it was pretty scary.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

We think we are so clever...but are we, really?

I teach zoology.  Part of the fun of that is that there are around 30 unique animal body plans, and each one has its own range of sizes, shape, behaviors, and lifestyles.

Another thing that makes zoology fun is that when I watch sci-fi movies I enjoy looking and the sci-foi critters and see which real-life animal parts and pieces the "creature creators" chose to assemble into the creature for their movie.

The other day my daughter and I went to the theater and saw "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" in 3D (the 3D is, IMO, just a gimmick and doesn't add much).  While there, I took a close look at the Gungans Boss Nass and Jar Jar Binks, and I started thinking about what kind of animal they might be based on.  Here's what I came up with.

To make creatures more appealing or familiar you make them bi-pedal.  If you want them to he scarier (or you have a bigger budget), add more legs.  Obviously the creature creators wanted the Gungans to present a combination of familiarity and comic relief, but not be too buddy-buddy with humans - so they have no hair and sloping or flat foreheads.

OK, what animals are Gungan-esque?  My vote?  Mudskippers!  Check them out in this short video clip.  These are Japanese Blue-spotted Mudskippers.

Except for the teeth, doesn't Boss Nass remind you of a fighting mudskipper?

And the bulging eyes of the Gungans are extremely mudskipper-ish, even though Gungans also have prominent nostrils.

Both movie images are from Lucasfilms "Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace".
The mudskipper images are from the BBC series, LIFE - it's super-fantastic!

So, are we REALLY as clever as we like to think we are?  I'll grant that we can mix and match, and cut and paste, but so far with extremely rare exception every sci-fi critter I've seen is just a creative mixture of parts and pieces of real but usually unfamiliar creatures that live out there...somewhere.

My final conclusion...nature is more clever than we are!

At least that's what I think.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Changing my mind...

I was planning to post a whole series of entries on climate change, but there are already so many sites out there about this that there's no reason for me to duplicate all that effort. I may still post things from time to time about climate change, but I'm going to let the idea of a whole series go. It's just as well. If you are interested in climate change I heartily encourage you to seek out credible information from sources like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Geologic Survey, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cheers!

Climate Change 1: Matter, Energy, Weather, and Climate

If you are like me you know at least a few people who have extremely strong opinions about climate change but don't understanding much about climate science.  When someone like this enters into a casual conversation about climate change the discussion can quickly turn into an emotionally charged argument.  This, in my experience, is both uncomfortable and unproductive.

In order to understand climate change we don't need opinion, we need an understanding of scientific principles and have access to empirical observations.  As I hope you read in my earlier posting "On Science 2: Limitations of Science", science can address only questions that are objective and empirical.  This means that an objective question has an actual answer that is not based on personal bias or opinion, and that answer can be discovered via empirical evidence.

My goal in sharing these postings on climate change is to provide you with the background and empirical information (observations) you can use to develop your own scientific understanding of this extremely complex and important part of the natural world.  I will do my best to emphasize scientific principles and observations and minimize personal bias as I do so.

OK, let's start with some fundamental scientific principles and some definitions that apply to climate (and lots of other things).

Climate is affected by a large variety of factors, but two of the most important ones relate to matter and energy, so let's start there.

The Law of Conservation of Matter:

This law states that matter cannot be created or destroyed, and that changes in matter affect only the form or chemical condition of the matter involved.  This means that if matter goes through any kind of change, that you will end up with the same total amount of matter as you started with.  For example, If you weigh something before you burn it, and you add the weight of the ash and gases that are released (yeah, gases have mass) you will discover that the total mass before and after the burning is the same.  Plus, if you put something in your garbage can and someone picks up your trash and hauls it away, you do not see the trash any more, but it still exists...someplace.

What does this have to do with climate?  Climate, as you will see, is all about the movement of matter and the energy it contains around the planet, and the length of time between when energy enters our planet system (atmosphere, ocean, land) and when it leaves.  OK, about energy...

The First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics: 
(FYI - There is ongoing discussion about whether there are three or four laws of thermodynamics, but I will refer to the two laws that are most applicable to questions about climate.)

The first law of thermodynamics: This law is also known as the law of conservation of energy.  It states that there is no change in the total amount of energy in a closed system, even if energy within the system changes from one form to another.  This law also states that heat will move from a location higher heat/energy to one of lower heat/energy until the closed system reaches thermal equilibrium.

If, however, you observe an open system, such as our planet which has energy coming and going, then energy will either flow into or out of the system depending on the the energy state of the connected systems, e.g., space, the sun, etc.

What does the first law have to do with climate? For one thing, if Earth became a closed system it would eventually reach a state of thermal equilibrium that would be MUCH colder than we experience today.  If this happened, there would be no outside energy to drive things like winds, currents, the water cycle of evaporation and precipitation, photosynthesis, and so one.  It would be VERY boring to be a weather forecaster or climatologist, because everything would end up being thermally and climatically static.

The second law of thermodynamics: This law states that when energy is transformed from one form to another the amount of energy available to do work unavoidably decreases, and the balance of energy is called entropy.  Entropy is typically released as low-grade heat.  For example, an internal combustion energy runs by burning chemical energy in the form of gasoline.  The chemical energy in gasoline is converted into mechanical energy that drives the pistons up and down inside the engine.  Not all energy that is released when gasoline burns drives the pistons; the balance of energy (entropy) is released as waste heat that you can feel when you touch the engine block.

What does the second law have to do with climate?  The energy to run almost all processes on Earth are driven directly or indirectly by sunlight.  Sunlight is extremely high quality energy, but when sunlight is absorbed by something, say the seat of your car, that high quality energy is released as low quality heat (I'll discuss this in a later posting in more detail).  This means that we need an ongoing supply of high quality energy to keep the planet running.  If we didn't have that, entropy would increase until all energy exists only in extremely low-quality forms, and life as we know it could not exist.   


Before we go farther with this discussion about climate, we should cover a couple of definitions...

Climate and Weather

I routinely hear people talking about the weather and think that they are talking about climate and vice versa.  Since this is the case I think we should take a little time and think about the difference between climate and weather, as well as how they are related to each other.

In doing this I agree with Jack Handey of Saturday Night Live fame who quipped in one of his Deep Thoughts when he said:

"Sometimes I think the so-called experts actually are experts."(1) 

So, what do some experts - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The National Snow and Ice Data Center - say about these terms?


NOAA defines weather this way:

“Weather is the state of atmosphere-ocean-land conditions (hot/cold, wet/dry, calm/stormy, sunny/cloudy) that exist over relatively short periods like hours or days. Weather includes the passing of a thunderstorm, hurricane, or blizzard, a persistent heat wave, a cold snap, a drought. Weather variability and extreme events may respond unpredictably in response to climate change.” (2)
The NSIDC defines weather this way:

“Weather is the day-to-day state of the atmosphere, and its short-term (minutes to weeks) variation. Popularly, weather is thought of as the combination of temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, visibility, and wind.” (3)

Both of these definitions refer to short-term descriptions of atmospheric conditions that are subject to change locally on a minute-to-minute basis.


NOAA defines climate this way: 

"Climate is the weather pattern we expect over the period of a month, a season, a decade, or a century. More technically, climate is defined as the weather conditions resulting from the mean, or average, state of the atmosphere-ocean-land system, often described in terms of"climate normals" or average weather conditions. Climate Change is a departure from the expected average weather or climate normals." (4)

The NSIDC defines climate this way: 

"Climate is defined as statistical weather information that describes the variation of weather at a given place for a specified interval. In popular usage, it represents the synthesis of weather; more formally it is the weather of a locality averaged over some period (usually 30 years) plus statistics of weather extremes.  We talk about climate change in terms of years, decades or even centuries. Scientists study climate to look for trends or cycles of variability (such as the changes in wind patterns, ocean surface temperatures and precipitation over the equatorial Pacific that result in El Niño and La Niña), and also to place cycles or other phenomena into the bigger picture of possible longer term or more permanent climate changes." (5)

These definitions refer to a long-term average (usually at least decades long) of the same atmospheric factors we consider when we refer to weather, and can be used to determine whether there is any deviation from long-term averages.  These long term shifts or changes are what we refer to as climate change.  In addition, some types of climate change can be observed globally, and others can be  observed regionally.     

Now that we have covered some basic scientific principles and a few definitions, you are ready to move on to the next topic - an introduction to the physical structure and geologic history of the atmosphere, land, and oceans.  This information is also an essential component of the foundation of information you will need to understand data about the climate, but this will have to wait until next time - this posting is already too long.


1. Handey, J. 1994. Deepest Thoughts - So Deep They Squeak. Hyperion Press, NY.