October 29, 2012
I was having one of those moments of modern life disconnect. I looked down and saw on the weather map the massive nasty-looking swirl headed this way. I looked up and saw the gentle flickering of the leaves on the maple tree out back.
It was a strange feeling, sitting in the quiet while gazing at the likely path of destruction and power outage misery Hurricane Sandy will follow over the next few days. But for all the anxiety that brought, it was better to know than not. Everyone on the East Coast has had three whole days to buy batteries and toilet paper.
Probably some people near the ocean who were told to evacuate will say that it wasn’t necessary and will complain about the imprecision of the computer models that drove those decisions. Truth is, though, the science of weather forecasting has become remarkably precise.
As Nate Silver pointed out in the New York Times last month, weather forecasters have become the wizards of the prediction business, far more accurate than political pundits or economic analysts. In his piece, titled “The Weatherman Is Not a Moron,” Silver writes:
“Perhaps the most impressive gains have been in hurricane forecasting. Just 25 years ago, when the National Hurricane Center tried to predict where a hurricane would hit three days in advance of landfall, it missed by an average of 350 miles. If Hurricane Isaac, which made its unpredictable path through the Gulf of Mexico last month, had occurred in the late 1980s, the center might have projected landfall anywhere from Houston to Tallahassee, canceling untold thousands of business deals, flights and picnics in between — and damaging its reputation when the hurricane zeroed in hundreds of miles away. Now the average miss is only about 100 miles.”
A numbers game
So why the dramatic improvement? It comes down to numbers, basically the number of calculations today’s supercomputers are able to do. Take, for instance, a huge computer operation that came online in Wyoming a few weeks ago for the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). It’s called Yellowstone and it can run an astounding 1.5 quadrillion calculations per second.
Put another way, Yellowstone can finish in nine minutes a short-term weather forecast that would have taken its predecessor three hours to complete. It will be able to significantly narrow the focus of it analysis to a smaller geographical area, taking the typical 60-square-mile unit used in this kind of computer modeling and shrinking it down to seven square miles. That’s like cranking up the magnification of a microscope, providing a level of data detail that makes more precise prediction possible.
Here, according to NCAR, is what it will mean in tracking tornadoes and violent thunderstorms:
“Scientists will be able to simulate these small but dangerous systems in remarkable detail, zooming in on the movement of winds, raindrops, and other features at different points and times within an individual storm. By learning more about the structure and evolution of severe weather, researchers will be able to help forecasters deliver more accurate and specific predictions, such as which locations within a county are most likely to experience a tornado within the next hour.”
Breaking it down
When a supercomputer models weather, it uses millions of numbers that represent such factors as temperature, barometric pressure, wind, etc., and analyzes them through a grid system in many vertical levels, starting at the Earth’s surface and rising all the way up to the stratosphere. The more data points it can process at one time, the more accurately it can gauge how those elements interact and shape weather patterns and movement.
But Nate Silver contends that one of the things that make weather scientists better predictors than their counterparts in other fields is their recognition that neither they nor their numbers are perfect. Not only have they learned to use their personal knowledge of weather patterns to adapt to some of the limitations of computer modeling–it isn’t very good at seeing the big picture or recognizing old patterns if they’ve been even slightly manipulated–but they also have become more willing to publicly acknowledge the uncertainty of their forecasts.
The National Hurricane Center, for instance, no longer shows a single line to represent the expected track of a storm. Now it provides charts displaying a widening swath of color indicating areas at greatest risk, a symbol that’s become known as “the cone of chaos.”
By accepting the flaws in their knowledge, says Silver, weather researchers now understand that “even the most sophisticated computers, combing through seemingly limitless data, are painfully ill equipped to predict something as dynamic as weather all by themselves.”
Meanwhile, back here in the cone of chaos, it’s time to start practicing reading by flashlight.
Here are other recent developments related to technology and extreme weather:
- What we don’t need to hear: Due to mismanagement and lack of financing, the U.S. is likely to have a gap in satellite coverage in the near future, meaning it would be without one of the key tools it uses in tracking the path of storms.
- Things that go bump in the night: New smart radar systems on airplanes will make it easier for pilots to locate and avoid violent thunderstorms.
- Definitely not a place to get stuck:China has started trial runs of the world’s first high-speed, high-altitude railway line built to withstand temperatures as low as 40 below zero.
Video bonus: Here’s the latest from the Weather Channel on the track of Hurricane Sandy.
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October 9, 2012
It’s the time of year when trees refuse to be ignored. Behold our fabulous hues, ponder our falling leaves, they goad us. And many of us do pay attention for a bit, only to lose interest when the show is over.
We know the cycle will begin again next spring and peak again in the fall, trees being one of the truer things in modern life. I mean, what’s more reliable than an oak?
But scientists will tell you that, like the oceans, the world’s trees are going through some serious changes, and not in a good way.
A dry run
Consider the impact of the drought that’s been desiccating America’s Southwest. Two weeks ago, the Texas A&M Forest Service issued a damage report: More than 300 million trees died in Texas forests alone as a result of the 2011 drought. It killed another 5.6 million trees in Texas cities.
Then last week a study published in Nature Climate Change concluded that if current climate trends continue, forests in the Southwest will die out at an accelerating rate. And not just from rising temperatures and lack of rain, but also from invasions of tree-eating pests and more destructive forest fires, also tied to climate change.
For instance, by analyzing forest fire data from satellites for the past 30 years in parallel with data on tree ring growth over the same period, the researchers were able to see a “strong and exponential” relationship between droughts and the number of acres of forests wiped out by wildfires.
Notes A. Park Williams, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and lead author of the study: “This suggests that if drought intensifies, we can expect forests not only to grow more slowly, but also to die more quickly.”
Computer models suggest that for 80 percent of the years in the second half of the 21st century, America’s Southwest will suffer through what the study describes as “mega-drought.”
In the spirit of giving trees more than a seasonal glance, here are 10 other things scientists have learned about them this year.
1) Forest fires have become more intense and harder to control. One big factor is the rising frequency of what are known as “blowdowns.” With violent storms with strong winds occurring more often, whole sections of forests are toppling over, creating, in essence, giant campfires awaiting a spark.
2) And the death of forests could double the number of big floods. A study at the University of British Columbia concluded that faster snow melts due to fewer trees creating shade will not only increase the size of floods, but could also make the really big ones happen more often.
3) Sick trees could be boosting greenhouse gas levels. Scientists at Yale University found that diseased trees can carry very high levels of methane, one of the more potent greenhouse gases. Although they appear healthy, many old trees–between 80 and 100 years old–are being hollowed out by a fungal infection that slowly eats through the trunk, creating a nice home for methane-producing microorganisms.
4) On a brighter note, palm trees once grew in Antarctica. Okay, it was 53 million years ago, back when Antarctica was still connected to Australia, but researchers drilling deep beneath the sea floor off the eastern coast of the now-frozen continent, found pollen grains from palm and macadamia trees. Scientists estimate that back then, high summer temperatures there could reach the upper 70s.
5) A handful of trees can tell the rainfall history of the Amazon. Based on measurements of oxygen isotopes trapped within the rings of only eight cedar trees in Bolivia, scientists at the University of Leeds in Great Britain say they can tell how much it has rained over the entire Amazon basin during the past century.
6) NASA technology could help save trees that look risky. The space agency is using high-tech cameras to create 3-D images of trees, a process that will help experts get a better idea of where a tree is likely to crack and how it might come down. Ideally, this could help save trees that arborists now would probably cut down.
7) Will it be smarter to grow smaller trees? Scientists at Oregon State University think so. They believe it will make sense to grow genetically-modified “semi-dwarf” trees in the future to make them better suited for drier climates and as a source of bioenergy.
8) Slow down on the maple syrup. The U.S. Forest Service says that climate change is likely to diminish production of maple syrup later this century. The reason? Habitats suitable for maple trees are expected to shrink.
9) Fossilized forests could come back to life. Forests in the Canadian Arctic that last were alive more than 2.5 million years ago could be revitalized by climate change, according to a University of Montreal scientist. Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier says that, according to climate change forecasts, temperatures could rise to levels similar to when willow, pine and spruce trees thrived in now snow-covered places such as Bylot Island.
10) Good trees make good neighbors? Studies in three American cities–Baltimore, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore.–concluded that urban neighborhoods with more trees tend to have lower crime rates. While no researcher would go so far as to say that trees reduce crime, they did find a “very strong association” between more tree canopy and less crime.
Video bonus: In case you think I’ve spent way too much time talking about trees, sit back and watch a year in the life of forest go by in two minutes.
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August 3, 2012
For 40 years Landsat satellites have been circling the Earth, taking pictures from roughly 440 miles above us. Each loop lasts about 99 minutes and it takes about 16 days to capture the entire planet. Which means that Landsats have been recording, in 16-day intervals, the ebb and flow of our relationship with the planet since the early 1970s.
It’s been, as they say in the relationship business, a rough stretch, but for most of it, only scientists have been paying much attention. These were people tracking the explosion of cities or the scarring of rainforests or the melting of glaciers. As for the rest of us, well, we may have been aware that things were changing, and not for the better, but we had little sense of the scale or pace of change.
Now we can see for ourselves, thanks to a joint project of Google, the U.S. Geological Survey and Carnegie-Mellon University. Google has already stored 1.5 Landsat million images in its Google Earth Engine and now CMU scientists have refined software that allows many of those images to be watched as zoomable, time-lapse videos.
It’s an experience both fascinating and sobering. Take, for instance, a satellite timelapse of Las Vegas since 1999. You see the city speading like kudzu into the desert, while nearby, Lake Mead shrinks a bit more every year. The two aren’t directly related–the lake’s being drained by drought and warm winters upstream on the Colorado River. But if you live anywhere near there, it couldn’t be a comforting juxtaposition.
Or consider a time lapse of the Amazon rainforest during the same period. You watch as farmers’ fields spider out like veins from a road built through the green canopy. And when brown fields take over an area, another road is cut and more fields follow. As Carnegie Mellon scientist Randy Sargent put it, “You can continue to argue about why deforestation has happened, but you no longer will be able to argue whether it happened.”
Archaeology from space
It turns out that satellite photography isn’t just a powerful tool for tracking recent Earth events; it’s also a way to look deep into the past. A report published earlier this year revealed that archaeologists are able to see traces of now-buried ancient settlements by applying a computer program to satellite photos. This works because human settlements, specifically organic waste and decayed mud bricks, leave behind a unique signature in the soil. Under infrared analysis, it tends to be much denser than the soil around it.
Using this technique, Harvard archaeologist Jason Ur was able to spot as many as 9,000 potential hidden settlements in a 23,000-kilometer area of northeastern Syria alone. “Traditional archaeology goes straight to the biggest features — the palaces or cities — but we tend to ignore the settlements at the other end of the social spectrum,” said Ur. “The people who migrated to cities came from somewhere; we have to put these people back on the map.”
Another scientist using satellite images, Sarah Parcak, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, actually refers to herself as a “space archaeologist.” Last year she located as many as 17 possible small pyramids buried under the sand in Egypt through a satellite survey. Said Parcak, “It’s an important tool to focus where we’re excavating. It gives us a much bigger perspective on archaeological sites. We have to think bigger and that’s what the satellites allow us to do.”
Here’s a sampling of some of the more memorable images captured by satellite cameras:
- An Olympian effort: In the spirit of the Games, NASA has pulled together aerial views of the 22 cities that have hosted the Summer Olympics since the modern games began in 1896.
- Growth spurts: While we’re peering down at cities, here are 11 more that have seen explosive growth in recent decades, from Chandler, Arizona, which has eight times as many residents as it did in 1980, to the Pearl River Delta in China, which was completely rural in the 1970s and now has a population of more than 36 million.
- Scorched Earth: Only a satellite image can give you a true sense of how much devastation the Waldo Canyon fire did in Colorado earlier this summer.
- Beetle mania: More ugliness in Colorado: A satellite’s view of the destruction done by the tiny pine bark beetle.
- Breaking away: A series of satellite images captures an ice island twice the size of Manhattan breaking away from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland a few weeks ago.
- Dust never sleeps: This will make you throat go dry: A dust storm bridging the Red Sea.
- Is this place beautiful or what?: And finally…to mark Landsat’s 40th birthday, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey asked people to vote for the Landsat image that best presented Earth as a work of art. Here are the five top choices. .
Video bonus: Check out more stunning Landsat images in this clip about how the Google Earth Engine will make it much easier for people like you and me to to follow the Earth’s transformation.
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July 9, 2012
Remember the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Glinda, the good witch, warns the Wicked Witch of the West that someone might drop a house on her, too. For a fleeting instant, the wicked one is all vulnerability, glancing nervously at the sky for signs of another descending domecile.
That’s the image that popped into my brain this weekend when a guy on the radio mentioned the threat of “severe thunderstorms” later in the day. It probably helped that at that moment I was across the street from a house upon which a huge elm had toppled during the freakish derecho a week earlier. Most of the tree had been hauled away, but its giant tangle of roots remained, still attached to the large chunk of sidewalk it had ripped out of the ground, a jarring reminder of how powerful the winds that night had been.
I pay a lot more attention to weather reports these days, wondering if the next “severe” storm will knock out power for days–again–or worse, bring the big maple out back down on to our roof. My guess is that most people are feeling more wary about the weather, with what used to be seen as extreme now seemingly becoming our new normal.
So, if we should expect longer heat waves and droughts, more intense rainfalls and floods and, to put it bluntly, increasingly violent nature, what innovative thinking might help us cope with what’s coming?
Here comes trouble
For starters, the National Weather Service is rolling out new alerts that will pop up on your smart phone. To make sure you get the message, your phone will vibrate and sound a tone.
You don’t need to sign up for them or download an app. Alerts are sent to cell towers which then automatically broadcast them to any cell phones in the area. Doesn’t matter if you have an out-of-state number, either. If you’re driving through Kansas and there’s a twister coming, you’ll get buzzed.
For now, the weather service will send alerts warning people about tornadoes, flash floods, hurricanes, extreme wind, blizzards and ice storms, tsunamis, and dust storms. They won’t flag us about severe thunderstorms, however, because, they say, they happen so often. (Don’t remind me.)
Everyone’s a weatherman
But what if we could start using our smartphones to crowdsource the weather? That’s what Nokia EVP Michael Halbherr proposed during a recent interview. His thinking is that smartphones could be equipped with sensors that register humidity levels and barometric pressure.
I know, that’s nice, but what are you going to do with knowing the barometric pressure, right? Halbherr’s idea is to turn each phone into a mini weather station.
His take: “If millions of phones were transmitting real-time barometric pressure and air moisture readings, tagged with geo-location data, then the art of weather prediction could become much more a science.”
The tricorder lives?
If you like the idea of knowing as much as possible about your immediate surroundings, there’s an invention in the works that may be the closet thing we’ll have to the old Star Trek tricorder. Called the Sensordrone, it’s a device that attaches to your key chain and it’s loaded with sensors.
Through a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone, it will be able to tell you not just the temperature, the humidity, and the barometric pressure, but also the quality of the air you’re breathing and level of light to which you’re being exposed. And, if you think you may have had too much to drink, it could serve as a pocket breathalyzer.
You can get instant readings, but the data can also be stored on your phone, so you’ll be able to make graphs of your own personal space. If that sounds like we’re entering into Too Much Information territory, well, maybe so. But the Sensordrone, being marketed as the “sixth sense of your smartphone,” is another idea that’s been a winner on Kickstarter. Its inventors had hoped to raise $25,000, but so far, with almost two weeks to go, they’ve roused up almost $120,000 in pledges.
Doing something about the weather
Here’s more on using technology to track Mother Nature:
- Where there’s smoke: High-res optical sensors originally designed in Germany to analyze comet emissions have been adapted to create a device called FireWatch. Already in use in Europe, it can detect a plume of smoke up to 20 miles away, usually within 10 minutes, although it takes slightly longer at night.
- But they will not give interviews: This hurricane season, for the first time, NOAA will use robotic boats to track tropical storms and hurricanes. The drones, a water scooter named Emily and a kind of surfboard called Wave Glider, will be sent out into the middle of the nasty weather where they’ll gather data and take pictures.
- Something in the air: Intel is developing sensors that can be placed on lampposts and traffic lights and will be able to tell your smartphone how polluted the air is at street level.
- Sensor and sensibility: Chemists from the University of California, Berkeley, are installing 40 sensors around the city of Oakland, creating the first network that will provide real-time, neighborhood-by-neighborhood readings of greenhouse gas levels in an urban area.
- Taking the long view: Construction is underway in Florida and Massachusetts on the first two of what will be 20 monitoring stations around the U.S. that will track climate change, the spread of invasive species and other environmental trends over the next 30 years.
- We’ve even got space weather covered: We may soon be able to accurately estimate when radiation from solar storms will hit us. Scientists say neutron sensors at the South Pole will be able to provide the data they need to make solid predictions on the timing and impact of space weather.
Video bonus: I’m betting you’ve probably never seen lightning quite like this. During a thunderstorm last August, it took aim at the CN Tower in Toronto and never let up.
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June 26, 2012
The planet probably won’t become dramatically more sustainable as a result of what happened last week at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Yes, lofty speeches were delivered and hundreds of billions of dollars of pledges were made, but the chance of a meaningful climate change treaty coming out of one of these events is now none and noner.
Yet one thing that has become painfully clearer with each passing U.N. climate summit is that the key to sustaining life on Earth is to get smarter about how we develop and reshape cities. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas; by mid-century it will be closer to three out of four people.
The need to find more space, along with the desire to develop cleaner and more efficient ways to keep cities running, is spurring urban planners to look for unconventional solutions. And they’re finding that more of the answers may be beneath their feet. It’s a big shift. As Leon Neyfakh wrote recently in the Boston Globe: “In a world where most people are accustomed to thinking of progress as pointing toward the heavens, it can be hard to retrain the imagination to aim downward.”
But cities around the world are adjusting their aim; the underground is becoming the next urban frontier.
Here are a handful of projects pushing the possibilities:
1) When there’s no place to go but down: The showpiece of all the potential underground projects is a 65-story inverted pyramid known as the “Earthscraper.” Instead of reaching for the sky, it would burrow 1,000 feet into the ground beneath Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo. Taking an elevator 40 floors down into the Earth may not sound like anyone’s idea of an awesome way to start the day, but it can be much better than it might seem, insists architect Esteban Suarez, of BNKR Arquitectura, who imagined this plan.
As he sees it, the Zocalo plaza would be covered with glass that would serve as the building’s ceiling. The Earthscraper’s center would be left as open space to allow natural light and ventilation to flow through each floor. And every 10 floors, there’d be an “Earth Lobby” of plant beds and vertical gardens to help filter the air down there. Suarez envisions the first 10 floors nearest the surface as a museum, with the next 10 down reserved for condos and shops and the next 35 floors designed as office space. The Earthscraper faces a lot of challenges, including an estimated cost of $800 million, and plenty of skeptics think it will be true its vision and never see the light of day. But urban designers are keeping an eye on this one to see if it’s the project that moves cities in a whole new direction.
2) When progress means going back into caves: The hands-down leader in plumbing the possibilities of subterranean life is Helsinki, the only city in the world that actually has a master plan for underground development. The Finnish capital sits above bedrock close to the surface, which has allowed it to start building out another city beneath itself. It’s carved through the rock to create an underground pool, a hockey rink, a church, shopping mall, water treatment plant and what are known as “parking caverns.”
But the most innovative feature of this netherworld is, believe it or not, a data center. Usually, data centers are energy hogs, burning up massive amounts of power to keep machines from overheating. Not under Helsinki. There the computers are kept cool with sea water, and the heat they do generate is used to warm homes on the surface. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are looking to follow Helsinki’s lead in moving the unsightly parts of urban life–treatment plants, garbage transfer centers, fuel storage depots, data centers–into underground caverns.
3) When cities suck, but in a good way: The small, but fast-growing city of Almere in the Netherlands has become a model for cities dealing with the mountains of garbage they generate every day. For years Almere has whisked away its trash through a network of underground suction tubes, but more recently it has added litter cans to the system. The bins automatically drop their trash into the vacuum tubes once sensors indicate that they’re full. So the litter never overflows or ends up in piles that make only the rats happy.
A similar underground trash suction system, also designed by the Swedish firm Envac, has been handling garbage from New York’s Roosevelt Island for years and now feasibility studies are underway to see if it can be extended to serve the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and Coney Island’s boardwalk.
4) When a walk in the park gets really deep: Among the many things most people couldn’t imagine doing underground, having a picnic likely would be high on the list. But that hasn’t deterred two innovative thinkers, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, from pushing for the creation of New York’s first underground park. Their idea is to take a dank, subterranean trolley terminal that’s been abandoned since 1948 and turn it into a place where people can stroll under Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The key to making this work, says Barasch, is using the latest fiber-optic technology to direct natural sunlight into the space–enough sunlight, he insists, to grow grass and plants. To spark the public’s imagination, they’ve been calling it the “LowLine,” an echo of the celebrated elevated High Line park on the city’s West Side. And while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the property, would have to buy into the plan, it got a nice little boost in April. Barasch and Ramsey pitched their idea on Kickstarter, hoping to raise $100,000 to start the design work. Instead, they’ve raised $150,000 in pledges from 3,300 people.
In the land down under
More notes from underground:
- I love the smell of mocha blend in the morning: Researchers at the City College of New York say they’ve found a way to take the stink out of sewers. Their remedy? Coffee grounds cooked to about 800 degrees Celsius.
- A fungus among us: A pair of “horitcultural artists” have created some truly authentic underground art in an abandoned London railway station. It’s been designed so that mold, fungi and even edible mushrooms will sprout from and spread across the surface over the summer.
- And such a tasteful way to hide the unsightly tourists: You know that going underground is coming into fashion when you hear the Paris city council is considering building a welcome center and ticket counter underneath the Eiffel Tower. It would be designed to reduce the crowds in the plaza around the tower and allow tourists to line up in dry, air-conditioned comfort.
- A nice little place from which to rule the world: And here’s a bit more evidence that going beneath the surface is trending glamorous. Apple’s new spaceship-esque research center to be built in Cupertino, California will include a huge underground auditorium. And it is there where Apple will unveil its latest products to the universe.
Video bonus: For a closer look at how Helsinki is setting the pace for tapping underground potential, this CNN report takes you down below.