Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A link between dust and hurricanes?

At right, Hurricane Floyd in the late summer of 1999 before it made its northward turn up the eastern seaboard of the United States. Image from NCDC.

Hurricanes capture the human imagination. Hurricanes are the perfect natural disaster for the 21st century. Unlike their brethren disasters, hurricanes are somewhat predictable, their massive symmetric swirl can be seen on satellite images days before the hurricanes reach the short of a tropical island or the coastline of a massive continent. Best yet, hurricanes are beamed into your livingroom via satellite. Whether you are watching a panting weatherman on CNN yelling barely coherent words about how this is the worst hurricane to hit since the last one, or you are watching on the Weather Channel as some slightly idiotic meteorologists stations themselves 15 feet from the ocean as 95 mile per hour winds batter their highly makeuped faces, hurricanes are something that everyone can understand, successfully visualize and ultimately relate to.

At right, dust blows off the Sahara Desert over Western Africa on it’s way across the Atlantic. The presence of dust can be seen as a gentle haze over much of the left 1/3 of the picture. The image was taken by MODIS satellite June 6, 2008.

So, maybe it’s more surprising that it ought to be that hurricanes can be impacted by the presence of tiny earthen particles in the atmosphere, known as mineral dust. Mineral dust is picked up by the wind from dirt, dust and sand on the Earth’s surface and blown hundreds or thousands of miles, sailing across oceans on rivers of air high above, often landing on differing continents. When the wind direction and speed are just right and the soil conditions just so, lots of dust can be picked up at once, and the sky darkened as dust obscures the sun’s rays. These impressive massive floating storms of dust are known as dust storms, and recent findings suggest that these dust storms makes hurricanes less likely to form or thrive in their presence.

Recently, this topic was discussed on all things considered on NPR. Follow this link and click on the red button with a speaker icon to take a listen to the report.

Dust seems to oppose hurricane formation in two ways, first by absorbing sunlight it cools the ocean beneath it. Hurricanes rely on warm waters to gather the energy and moisture necessary for them to develop into intense storms. Secondly, dust tends to be found in a dry, hot airmass lofted between 1 and 5 kilometers above the surface. This dry, hot layer tends to choke the hurricane by stealing moisture from the storm, and interfering with the convection that provides the heat engine for the hurricane.

Interestingly enough, dust storms are maximized each year during the summer, coincident with hurricane season. This coincidental timing increases possibility that there are meaningful dust – hurricane interactions each season. The figure to the right if from research we have done here at Stony Brook, showing the average amount of absorbing aerosols, including dust, that are found in the atmosphere each season. As you can see there are a lot of these aerosols over Africa, and as you head westward it slowly decreases. This suggests that dust plumes pick up large quantities of dust, which gets transported long distances, increasing the likelihood that it has a chance to interact with tropical systems.

Dust is what I study, and this finding is quite exciting. I am working hard to find ways to anticipate the quantity of dust storms that will occur each year based on meteorological conditions. If said forecasts help to further predict how many hurricanes each year, I will have made a lasting contribution to humanity, which is always the goal of a research scientist.

Monday, September 29, 2008

New wind energy plan for Long Island

Sorry about the lack of posts last week. I am working on my PhD proposal presently, and I find it hard to do a lot of writing in one day and work on multiple writing projects at the same time.

Another plan is in the works to place wind turbines off the south shore of Long Island, according to this blurb from News 12 Long Island.

Putting windmills in the Atlantic Ocean to generate power for Long Island is back on the drawing board at LIPA, the power authority says. After a failed try for a wind farm off Jones Beach, the company is now trying for Queens.

LIPA CEO Kevin Law told the power authority’s board Tuesday morning that he has been talking with Con Edison about the idea. Law says the aim is to reduce Long Island’s reliance on oil from the Middle East.

”We agreed that perhaps it would make sense, where we could share the cost and share the power,” Law says.

A proposed wind farm off Jones Beach was canceled last year because of concerns it was too expensive. The new proposal would include more windmills than the Jones Beach project and would be located further out -- about 10 miles from the Rockaways.
LIPA says the technology has improved since the Jones Beach plan was considered.

LIPA and Con Edison are working on determining the cost of the project and if the wind farm would end up saving Long Islanders money in the long run. If they determine the plan does not make economic sense, it will not be pushed forward.

Previous attempts to harvest the large quantities of wind power available off the south shore of Long Island failed primarily for two reasons; first the project would cost so much that the energy harvested would be prohibitively expensive and secondly the project was near to a scenic region off of Jones Beach that residents were concerned would be obscured by the project.

The new project is expected to be larger in scope than the previously proposed project, so the hope is that construction expenses per unit energy produced will be lower, thus the energy will be more reasonably priced. The news blurb vaguely makes reference to “new technology” that would cost less to install or run. Compared to a few years ago, fossil fuel based electricity is more expensive, so this project may make a bit more economic sense.

As per the visual impact of the project, it should be similar, as both projects were expected to be 10 miles off the coast. There may be a difference in public perspective however between “off of Jones Beach” and “off of Queens.” People may have been protective (overly so?) of their parkland view.

A very unscientific poll by News 12 Long Island found 87% (521 self selected respondents) of people who self-surveyed themselves were in favor of building the wind turbines off the coast of Queens, and only 13% (72 self selected respondents) were opposed. This ratio is likely to change when the costs of the projects are announced.

So it seems that the public is now strongly in support of the initiative, whereas only a few years ago they were skeptical of a similar project. It is unclear if this is due to a shift in public opinions of alternative energy sources, or if it is a result of the project being moved away from Jones Beach. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Walden...er Emerson Pond

A major coup was scored in New York State in the name of conservation, when the Nature Conservancy purchased a large tract of previously held private land for preservation. But before we get there, here are a few random comments I’d like to share with the general blog reading audience.

• Okay, so baseball season is drawing to a close. And that means the droning, grating tones of John Sterling, and worse Suzyn Waldman will cease permeating my car. But honestly after being subjected to Dan Dierdorf for 3 hours during the Giants game on Sunday, I take back everything bad I ever said about baseball announcers. Listening to him is pure misery.

• I advise you strongly to not ever write anything negative about Geo Metros. It turns out that Geo Metro drivers are very much so pleased with their cars, and do not take kindly to you calling them “ugly,” “hideous” or “deathtrap.” The validity of these statements evidently doesn’t change their minds.

* Have you ever been set up to fail? Given an assignment or task that you are woefully unqualified to complete? This happened to me this past week. I was to give a lecture on subject matter that I’m totally uncomfortable with to fellow graduate students. Best case scenario is I look like an idiot. Worst case scenario, I am an idiot. Despite the feeling of impending doom, it was frighteningly liberating. When you know you are going to bomb at something, you can do so with flair. I feel like this morning when I gave the worst lecture on the Coreolis Force in the history of lecturing, at least I went down swinging.

Okay – back to the blog. Take a gander at this video. Breathe it in.

The property in the above video was recently acquired by the Nature Conservancy. The idea behind the property acquisition is to eventually turn the property over to the state of New York for inclusion in the Adirondack State Park. The property in question is known as “Follensby Pond” and checks in at 14,600 acres. The 14,600 acres includes a 1,000 acre stretch around Follensby Pond where Ralph Waldo Emerson and crew chilled out. Prior to acquisition the Pond was the largest such pond in private possession in the Northeastern United States.

From the Nature Conservancy Website:

Follensby Pond drains into the Raquette River where a 20-mile stretch of silver maple floodplain forest is considered to be the best example of that natural community type in the Adirondacks and among the best in the state. The quiet, slow-moving backwater pools associated with that largely undisturbed stretch of river also earned high ranks in a three-year Nature Conservancy study which assigned local, state, and global rankings to approximately 102 natural community types found in the Adirondacks.

This is a very exciting acquisition for the Nature Conservancy, and eventually for New York State. In addition to being beautiful lands, the region is also ecologically unique, being chosen as the site of Bald Eagle re-introduction.

Follensby Pond was selected as the only site in the Adirondack Park where bald eagles were reintroduced, a process known as “hacking.” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation endangered species unit leader Peter Nye led the effort in the 1980s. “Follensby was an ideal location because it had suitable habitat for current and future use by the eagles, was free from human disturbance, and good for nesting,” he said, adding that it was “a place where eagles could be eagles.”

In 1981 Nye traveled to Alaska, one of the few places in the nation where eagles were abundant, to collect eaglets unable to fly, but old enough to regulate their temperature and tear and eat fish without parental assistance. As many as 60 eaglets were released at Follensby Pond over several years, including one the McCormick grandchildren named “Emerson.” Today, the 12 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the Adirondacks are a testament to the success of those efforts.

It will be some time for New York residents to gain access to the property, as parts of it are currently being leased out for individual recreational use. Full details on the acquisition are available in this New York Times article.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What is so smart about SMART cars?

Well we haven’t had a comment (or a reader) since August, so maybe it’s time to spice things up a bit. Let’s talk cars for a moment.

Both of the cars shown above (pictures taken from edmunds.com) are hideously ugly and would most likely provide little to no safety protection should you get in a horrific accident. One of the cars above gets 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 miles per gallon highway and will set you back at least $14,000. The other car gets over 50 miles per gallon in either scenario and you could pick one up for less than a grand ($1,000). Did I mention that both are hideously ugly?

Well for all the luxury of a 1994 Geo Metro and only $13,000 more you too can own a SMART Car. So, what exactly is it that has environmentally minded folks rushing to their nearest SMART car dealer to take one home?

Lower Emissions

The smart fortwo is also classified as an Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) due to its extremely low exhaust emissions. The catalytic converter is positioned close to the engine for a quick response. An electric pump blows fresh air into the exhaust port when the engine is cold to almost completely oxidize the carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) and render them harmless.

The above quote, taken from the smartcar website on “ecology,” implies that the car produces few gasses that are destructive compounds. When we think about car emissions, we are concerned primarily with two sorts of compounds NOx’s and VOC’s. NOx compounds are any nitrogen-oxygen molecules, such as NO2 (nitrogen dioxide), N2O (nitrous oxide), and NO (Nitric oxide). These compounds are quite active in the photochemical (that is to say chemical reactions involving solar energy) reactions that produce ozone. VOC’s are a much more diverse and complicated groups that can be best described as hydrocarbon byproducts of fossil fuel combustion. They are produced from imperfections in your gasoline and incomplete combustion of the gasoline fuel itself.

So the SMART car reduces VOC emissions but not NOx emissions. Why is this important? Well, as many frustrated city engineers have found reducing VOC’s without reducing NOx’s can lead to increases in total ozone! Take a gander at the chart to the right (taken from this website) and see why.

The x axis shows the concentration of VOC’s and the y axis shows the concentration of NOx’s. The curves on the graph show the amount of ozone formed from the amount of VOC and NOx indicated on the axes. Take a set value of VOC say 0.5, draw a vertical line on the chart in your mind. Depending on how much NOx you start with, increasing or decreasing the concentration of NOx can increase or decrease total ozone. Thus we must be careful to reduce both when we reduce emissions.

SMART car prides itself on its ability to be recycled. But as far as our waste stream goes, cars are probably some of the most well recycled and reused components. Consider what happens when a car goes to a junkyard, the electronics are removed to be resold, any working components of the car are removed to be sold as spare parts, any and all residual metal is compressed and sent to Asia for recycling – all that is left is plastic, fabric and foam. So any improvements to car design would have to pertain to those waste products primarily.

Ecofriendly Construction
Another major waste from car construction and use are the fluids, paints and chemicals applied to the upholstery of the interior. It appears as if the SMART car takes all of these things into effect in its construction, but details as to what exactly they do (aside from using less solvents in the painting process) are lacking on the website.

I can’t see what’s so smart about a SMART car, that hasn’t been done before. But perhaps someone out there can? This is something that strikes me as "trying to be green" just to sell a product, with little positive environmental impact.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Wow! Zero comments on the last three posts. Okay, this will be the last post on wind power for the near future. We’ll see if we can get some other responses from more interesting topics.

It has taken the nation a long time to get to the point we are today dealing with alternative energies. Although available for a number of years, only now has “alternative energy” become a topic that both political parties are rallying towards. Imagine how much more the push will be towards alternative energies in ten years, when the price of oil has doubled, and American’s home energy bills are soaring. Imagine every state taking advantage of wind and solar potential, constructing turbines and panels along farms and sky scrapers alike. Now imagine, despite all this production, rolling brownouts and blackouts in far removed areas, because we can’t get energy from where it is produced to where it is consumed. This is our likely future if the federal government doesn’t take swift action to address the rapidly ageing electrical grid, according to this article in the New York Times.

When the builders of the Maple Ridge Wind farm spent $320 million to put nearly 200 wind turbines in upstate New York, the idea was to get paid for producing electricity. But at times, regional electric lines have been so congested that Maple Ridge has been forced to shut down even with a brisk wind blowing.

Even today, progressive instillation of wind energy in Western and Central New York is being slowed by an antiquated electric grid. (And by the way, another point demonstrating how major this business is to the region, $320 million, yikes!).

I attended a seminar on the use of metaphors in explaining science to the public by Julia Mead last night, and this is an example of one used in the article, that I think is pretty solid (even if it is only a simile):

The grid today, according to experts, is a system conceived 100 years ago to let utilities prop each other up, reducing blackouts and sharing power in small regions. It resembles a network of streets, avenues and country roads.

“We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” said Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In short, the current system of electric grids is managed on the state level, and are often constructed with little to no interstate transmission of energy in mind. In the future, if we are to take advantage of the great solar potential in the desert Southwest or the great wind potential in the Great Plains, we will need a modern transmission system. In fact at present, our transmission system is limiting our ability to utilize this potential.

The grid’s limitations are putting a damper on such projects already. Gabriel Alonso, chief development officer of Horizon Wind Energy, the company that operates Maple Ridge, said that in parts of Wyoming, a turbine could make 50 percent more electricity than the identical model built in New York or Texas.

“The windiest sites have not been built, because there is no way to move that electricity from there to the load centers,” he said.

I’ll keep today’s post short and sweet, and conclude that an additional concern in the development of alternative energies is that we need a modern electricity transmission system or power grid developed before wide scale utilization of alternative energies is practical. An additional conclusion to be drawn from this point is that generation of energy from alternative sources in New York City is not only a trendy thing to do, but it’s a practical or almost perhaps necessary. Locally produced energy reduces the demand on the grid, and reduces the amount of energy that is wasted during its transmission.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Big Turbines in the Big Apple

Okay, today’s post will be much shorter than yesterday’s…that was too much text for any mere mortal to enjoy.

Big Turbines in the Big Apple?
Yesterday we discussed why large, industry standard 1.5 mega Watt turbines would not work in New York City. Today we’ll talk about a proposal to have large, industry standard 1.5 mega Watt turbines in New York City. As we discussed yesterday wind turbines need a lot of space. They are massive structures. They create noise not suitable for residential locals, and they can throw ice chunks great distances. Where in New York City is there space enough for giant wind turbines? Answer according to the New York Times: the United States largest landfill; Fresh Kills in Staten Island.

Having spent decades persuading the city to close the giant Fresh Kills landfill, Staten Island officials are now arguing that the vast site would be the perfect home for the energy-creating windmills that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has proposed as a way to make New York City more sustainable.

Wow turning what the Staten Island Borough President refers to as “one of the country’s worst ecological nightmares” into New York City’s first wind farm would be quite an environmental coup. Unlike the failed Long Island offshore windfarm, this endeavor may be economically viable (much of the cost with the Long Island had to do with construction and maintenance of an offshore site, a land based construction would be much more economical.) Lost in the Times article is that the project is just part of a major rehabilitation process for the landfill, including the creation of large areas of parkland and nature preserves.

A question arises, will the public have access to parts of the park where the wind turbines are located? Short term exposure to the noise generated by the turbines is not a serious concern, so long as care is taken during icy periods to avoid ice throw, hopefully the public will have full access to the region.

Will Small Turbines Work?
A second article in the Times discusses the utility of smaller turbines, the type that Mayor Bloomberg proposes to deploy across the city on rooftops, bridges and other structures. Do these small turbines produce enough energy for their expense?

These tiny turbines generate so little electricity that some energy experts are not sure the economics will ever make sense.
By contrast, the turbines being installed at wind farms are getting ever larger and more powerful, lowering the unit cost of electricity to the point that they are becoming competitive with electricity generated from natural gas.
The spread of the big turbines and a general fascination with all things green are helping to spur interest in rooftop microturbines, creating a movement somewhere on the border between a hobby and an environmental fashion statement.

The article seems to insinuate that at present the cost of instillation is not made up by the meager energy produced. Instead instillation is being driven by a desire to be green or be trendy. The article attempts to differentiate between smaller stand alone wind turbines and roof based, small turbines, noting that the smaller yet independent wind turbines do indeed produce enough energy to pay for themselves, whereas the roof based ones do not.

One assumes that technology will at some point overcome the technological and manufacturing challenges and produce inexpensive rooftop turbines. But the article notes that there are some major concerns with the urban wind environment in general.

But many experts caution that rooftops, while abundant, are usually poor places to harness the breeze. Not only are cities less windy than the countryside, but the air is choppier because of trees and the variation in heights in buildings. Turbulence can wear down a turbine and make it operate less efficiently. This is particularly problematic for houses with pitched roofs.

New York is a winder environment than most cities (windier in fact than the so called “Windy City” of Chicago), but the presence of sky scrapers does introduce a frictional drag decreasing the wind speed. The building induced turbulence is not a problem that technology will solve any time soon.

So the city faces major technological challenges to its desire to harness wind power upon rooftops. Only time and technology will show if this ambitious project is feasible.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Concerns About Wind Power in an Urban Enviroment

(Aside: Thanks to everyone who has e-mailed me about Science Debate 2008. I am planning on writing a few posts about how this years crop of politicians have performed on issues relating to the environment in October. Until then, you can stop e-mailing me about this :-).)

Avid reader, master strategist and all around great guy Chris John noted this concern about implementing wind power in an urban environment:

If an art exhibit (Olaf Eliasson's [sp] waterfalls) under the Brooklyn Bridge almost killed two kayakers, I dread to think of the mess we're going to have to clean up from wind turbines.

So lets take a few minutes to address wind power, and to think about how well suited it would be for a major urban region like New York City.

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to win the Evan R. Liblit Scholarship. I was honored to be chosen as the Evan R. Liblit Scholar, since Mr. Liblit was an environmental hero, championing the cause of recycling and responsible waste management on Long Island during the 1980’s and 1990’s. (People are so passionate about Evan Liblit, that they are even willing to row the length of the Yukon River to raise awareness and money). As part of the Scholarship I was to attend the New York State Solid Waste and Recycling Conference in Lake George. Admittedly, I wasn’t particularly excited about this – who wanted to spend a week learning about garbage? But my talk was well received, which was great and I got to see a presentation session on Wind Power in New York State, the content of which has stuck with me ever since.

As it turns out, wind power is becoming a big business in many parts of New York State, especially those regions that abut the Great Lakes. The regions downwind of the Great Lakes are (as we discussed before) in a region with great wind power potential, and also are suffering from a still stagnant economy that began its decline in the late 1980’s. As such many municipalities are investigating whether allowing utility companies to construct wind turbines on farmland and other open terrain would be beneficial to the communities. I can’t recall this with much certainty, but I do recall someone citing at the conference the example of a small town that had reduced its school and property taxes to zero by contracting with a major utility.

To me, one of the most surprising aspects of the wind power craze in Central and Western New York State, was the degree to which lawyers needed to be involved in the process. Here I will try to speak as simply as possible to avoid displaying my legal ignorance (much like Sarah Palin should avoid speaking in public about polar bears, global warming and ANWAR – ZING!). Small rural municipalities were very much so dependant upon two firms (one in Albany one in Buffalo) to draft complicated lease agreements with utilities as well as to craft appropriate zoning regulation that protected the health and welfare of residents along with allowing for economically reasonable utilization of wind energy. This process is much more involved than you think, due to the impacts of ice throw and noise pollution generated by wind turbines (actually it is so complicated that there is a legal blog dedicated to issues regarding wind power).

Ice Throw

Ice throw occurs when wind turbine blades become coated in ice, generally from freezing rain or from freezing fog. As winds pick up after the storm, the blades begin to rotate and in the process the ice that has accumulated on the blade can be thrown over large distances. The figure to the right, taken from this non-peered reviewed source, shows the distance ice can be hurled. Along the ordinate (x-axis) is shown the width of the turbine blades in meters. The y-axis shows the distance that ice chunks have been thrown. The color of the dots show the mass of the hurled ice chunks. Smaller chunks of ice have been shown to be thrown lengths in excess of three football fields. Larger chunks of ice, coming in at about 1kg or 2.2 lbs have been shown to be thrown 25m! Well take those results with a grain of salt, since they don’t come from a peer reviewed source, but none the less it is evident that wind turbines cannot be sited in densely populated regions, or even in regions with large amounts of infrastructure. It doesn’t need to be said, but obviously chunks of ice flying off of 50 story buildings in Manhattan would probably be frowned upon by local residents.

It should be noted that by my recollection, none of the speakers at the conference considered ice throw to be a major issue. They noted that technology was improving, reducing the capacity of ice to be thrown and that the amount of ice accumulation was relatively small in general and limited to short periods of the year. They also pointed out the lack of observed injuries related to ice throw, suggesting that either this is not a serious issue or that people have done a good job citing turbines.

Noise Pollution
A second major concern that requires the attention of zoners, is that of noise generation. Turbines when operational generate a low frequency humming noise. Although not altogether an unpleasant sound, the volume (which gets higher as the turbines speed up) accumulated over time can injure local residents long term hearing.

Here is a video of a large industrial wind farm, documenting the noise that the giant turbines make:

The amount of noise will vary based on the design of each turbine, the wind speed and local topography. Each community needs to assess how much noise each turbine in their town is expected to put out, and make zoning regulations that make sense for local resident’s health. In the case of New York City, it is unclear whether or not a wind turbine would produce noise in excess of the current noise levels. Massive wind turbines, like those shown on the above video are also not possible in an urban environment. One imagines that a smaller turbine built for rooftop use would have a much smaller noise impact.

Aesthetic impacts
The visual presence of wind turbines is thought to have a potential negative aesthetic impact. This is true in many pristine environments, but in other environments some folks actually enjoy the way the wind turbines look. I wish I had a reference to back this up, but I heard once that in Europe property values of locations with wind turbines.

In the case of the Long Island Windpark, concerns over property value were paramount. Additionally folks were very worried about the impact of wind turbines on the view from regional beaches and tourism.

Bird deaths
To be frank, I think that this issue is overstated. The number of birds killed by feral cats at Stony Brook University outnumbers the total number of birds killed by wind turbines in all of New York State I would guess. This issue seems to be something of an “ecco-myth” and probably stems back to antiquated technology. Some new wind turbines come equipped with “whistles” that emit sound on a wavelength that birds can hear (humans however cannot hear the sound) and find annoying.

Birds have a large number of threats to their well being to be sure, high tension wires, high rise buildings, automobiles, domesticated invasive species – I’m not so sure that wind turbines are of the order of impacts as the previously listed problems.

Yikes this post is getting long, probably past the point that anyone is still reading. So let me conclude with a wildcard. Everything we have been discussing so far has pertained to the traditional wind turbine. Colossal, gigantic, tall, massive – these are all adjectives that could be used to describe the turbines. These are not the sorts of turbines that would be practical in New York City.

Rohit Aggarwala, the director of the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, said that turbines on buildings would likely be much smaller than offshore ones. Several companies are experimenting with models that look like eggbeaters, which the Bloomberg administration says could be integrated into the spires atop the city’s tall buildings. “”You can make them so small that people think they are part of the design,” Mr. Aggarwala said. “If rooftop wind can make it anywhere, this is a great city,” he said. “We have a lot of tall buildings.”

Such new turbines would have to be designed to not produce any icethrow, and regardless of the size of the particles or how far they are thrown, ice chunks falling from sky scrapers would not be acceptable. Noise concerns must be taken into account, but I’m not entirely confident that wind turbines would be appreciably louder than air conditioner units currently housed on many rooftops, nor would they be louder than the ambient city noise levels. Bird kill in New York City may be a serious problem as many birds congregate on city rooftops. Furthermore, birds in New York City are notoriously stupid and their termination may be a blessing in disguise…just kidding.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The file drawer effect

So why post this summers climate report? Well for one, I am a meteorologist and old habits die hard. But the thing I wanted to stress was how poor our memories are when it comes to recalling previously encountered environmental conditions. When it comes down to it we often remember only the events that concur with what we expect or hope for. This preferential recollection occurs so often that psychologists have a name for it, the file-drawer effect*.

(*- I'm more impressed with myself for remembering this from Psychology 101 class in Fall 2002 in Bailey Hall, than I am with psychologist for coming up with the effect. Of course, the reason I remember this class so vividly isn't for the class itself but rather the instructor, Dr. Jim Maas. I have never in my entire life attended a series of lectures by someone who thought so highly of himself and felt the need to share this opinion with his subjects on such a regular basis. The class was practically a shrine to his achievements, including the mandatory reading of his own book. My favorie Jim Maas story however has nothing to do with the class. My friend and former roommate Bhargav had sprained his ankle at one point, and needed a ride onto campus. So we piled into my saturn and stopped outside of his building. Mass pulls up behind us, and while we are helping the obviously injured and on crutches Bhargav out of the car Maas lays on the horn, flailing his arms about wildly. The kicker was that there was room for him to drive around us. The amazing thing is that as much as I envy Mass' academic success (I mean who wouldn't, he teaches the largest undergraduate lecture in the US, has multiple books read and is a successful researcher at an Ivy League school), I would never want to be like him in a million years.)

File drawer effect, gets its name from file drawer cabinets, where in years passed researchers would dutifully file interesting research papers on topics related to their research. Researchers would pick out papers that agree with their hypothesis, and ignore or file away deeply in their drawers papers that disagreed with their hypothesis. Thus, you create a large cache of supportive papers and ignore (the occasionally massive) the collection of papers that contradict your research.

This premise materializes itself with tales of the supernatural. You may walk up a flight of stairs in your home over 10,000 times in your life. In all likelihood nothing odd will happen 9,999 times. However if one time by chance, a ball suddenly bounces down the stairs in the middle of the night, and out observe it, you will remember that freak occurrence. In fact you will almost certainly not recall the other 9,999 times when nothing out of the ordinary occurred, but then point to that one time as proof that a ghost lives in your staircase and haunts you late at night.

Perhaps this explains why the more educated you are the more likely you are to believe in the supernatural.

The 2006 study of college students, done by Bryan Farha at Oklahoma City University and Gary Steward Jr. of the University of Central Oklahoma, reached a similar conclusion. Belief in the paranormal — from astrology to communicating with the dead — increases during college, rising from 23 percent among freshmen to 31 percent in seniors and 34 percent among graduate students.

I hypothesize that as you progress in education you are trained in the art of observation, and learn to draw hypothesis and inferences from these observation. In the case of extremely unlikely occurrences, rather than attribute things to chance (which trained scientists often never do), we attribute this to the supernatural.

Well my point to all of this is don’t believe what you remember when it comes to the environment. What you remember is likely to be biased to what you want to remember. When grandpa tells you he had to walk up hill in snow up to his knees to get to school he’s probably right, that did happen. However, it probably only happened once, and he has since selectively recalled this event, ignoring all the other days that he did not walk to school in snow up to his knees.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A summer in review!

Summer ended on August 31st, the day before Labor Day, well for climate researchers at least, who define the summer as June, July and August. So it’s definitely worth a minute or two to look over the climate of the summer than has come and gone. But before I do an apology on the lack of postings over the past week and a half. I was off to see a dear old friend get married in Alabama and the beginning of the school year has left me reeling… now without further ado, back to blogging.

When it comes to the weather, our brains do a poor job recollecting past climate events. Nearly everyone has something to say about things have changed, “when I was a kid it rained almost everyday, now it never does” or “it used to be cold in the winter when I was growing up, now it’s so mild!” But one would assume that our brains can at least recall how the past few months have been relative to “normal.” Based on my experiences the past few months, I think it’s clear that humans can’t even do that.

Okay quick question for you, was this summer warmer or colder than “usual?” Was it wetter or drier? How often do you recall it getting about 90? Write down your answers, and see how well you did recalling the summer. For the record, I thought it was a very wet summer and that it was below average in terms of temperature, with maybe a week or so above 90.

Summer Summary:
Well, I’ll violate a cardinal rule of writing and tell you the answer first. It was warmer everywhere in the New York Metro area this summer than average. It was in fact, quite a bit warmer than average. In New York city (JFK airport) it was 2.2 degrees F above average. On Long Island (Islip airport) and Westchester (Westchester airport) it was only slightly above average, coming in at +0.8 and +0.3 degrees F respectively.

The figure to the right shows the national temperature anomaly for the summer. It was warm in the Northeast and hot along the west coast.

JuneJulyAugustSummer Ave
White Plains+2.3+1.0-2.3+0.3

June had the greatest temperature anomaly (or deviation from average) across the region. A heat wave from June 7 to 10th brought the thermometer to 95 across the region, and produced days that were 10 to 15 degrees warmer than average. Excluding the heat wave (and a few days at the end of the month) the remainder of the month was at or near average. In total there were four (five in the city) days that the thermometer reached 90 across the region. A typical June at Islip airport has 1.9 days above 90 (JFK averages 1.7), for comparison.

July was also above average across the region, although to a lesser degree. In July we experienced only one heat wave, from July 18th through the 22st. During this heat wave temperatures were 6 to 8 degrees above average, but outside of this period temperatures were again at or near normal. In total there were three (four in the city) days that the thermometer reached 90. A typical July at Islip airport has 3.1 days above 90 (JFK averages 4.4), again for comparison.

August was the odd month out, as it were, as it was below average across the region. 70’s and 80’s were the rule, as there were no days above 90 at any airport across the region. This is anomalous as JFK averages 2.8 days above 90 and Islip 1.4 days. There were no major warm periods, or for that matter cool periods. Nighttime lows were well below average, but daytime highs were near average. This suggests that there were a lot of clear dry days where the atmosphere could cool off quickly during the evening hours.

The figure to the right shows the temperature anomaly for August. You can see the cool pocket along the northeast, that stretched southwest across the Ohio Valley and into the Midwest. The west coast continued to broil…


JuneJulyAugustSummer Total
White Plains+0.88-0.57-1.06-0.75

First a disclaimer, precipitation during the summer season at station to station can be highly variable. Thunderstorms, which account for a majority of precipitation in the summer, are notoriously local. A thunderstorm can douse a region, and 10 miles down the road you can receive nary a drop. With this said, it was a dry summer with most locations receiving about 1.00” less rain than usual.

In June and July two stations come in drier than average, and in August all three stations look drier than average. Of note was July 20 – 22, where thunderstorms dropped over an inch of rain at each of the stations. Other than that, precipitation was highly random, suggesting that localized thunderstorms were responsible for the bulk of precipitation. Perhaps it was the lack of organized large precipitation bearing systems that resulted in the drier than average summer.

In Conclusion:
Well that’s it for our little memory exercise. How did you do? The conclusion is that it was a warm, dry summer. If you’re like me – you did poorly, and that bodes not so well for our species colloquial memories of climate. Next time Uncle Walter tells you how cold it was when he was your age, ask him what he thought of the