Tag Archives: Water

Hungry Birds

Walking around the Apex Reservoir this afternoon I noticed a lone Double-crested cormorant paddling along. I kept an eye on him as I figured he’d soon be diving, and I was curious how far he’d go underwater. Sure enough he submerged, and I looked ahead five, ten yards to catch where he came up.

I stretched to see around trees that blocked my view, and noticed a Great blue heron standing tall and statue-like about three feet offshore. Then the cormorant surfaced, a white fish about 4 inches long wiggling in its beak. Before the first cormorant swallowed his catch, a second cormorant surfaced, also bearing white fish. As soon as the first cormorant downed his fish, he dove under and within seconds surfaced with another fish. Suddenly I noticed a third cormorant, also with white fish in its beak.

All this time the heron looked on, motionless, less than five yards away from the ongoing feast, beak empty.

The school of white fish under the surface continued to provide a late afternoon dinner for the trio of cormorants for another few minutes while the heron watched.


HURRICANE GENESIS: A science review by Mark Betancourt in Air & Space Smithsonian

I’ve enjoyed Air & Space magazine for years, but an in-depth article by Mark Betancourt in the August 2015 issue goes above and beyond. I expect informative technology reviews and personal interest articles sating my inborn curiosity in aviation and space developments, but this story is one of the best science reviews I’ve read in a popular magazine.

Mr. Betancourt elucidates the state and the art of hurricane science, describing the methods and tools used to ask and answer the important questions. Of course, that’s how scientists operate, figuring out how to devise and conduct the tests required to solve the unknowns. Here we have the story of hurricane genesis focused on those tools and techniques climate scientists have used in the past as well as the new methods used today. But this story goes even further, into the future, laying out the questions we need to answer about how hurricanes begin.

Eye wall of Hurricane Katrina from NOAA aircraft

Betancourt does all this without forgetting how Air & Space magazine adroitly grabs reader’s attention with personal stories about real people. So we read about the first pilot to penetrate a hurricane in an airplane. Joseph Duckworth, an Army Air Corps flight instructor and unusually skilled instrument pilot, was eager to show his British student pilots the capabilities of the AT-6 Texan aircraft they liked to ridicule. In July, 1943, he flew an AT-6 into a hurricane off Texas’ Gulf Coast, and returned unscathed. A fascinated colleague asked Duckworth to take him into the hurricane on a repeat of his daring flight. He did so, again returning safely.
AT-6 Texans
Restored AT-6 Texans flying at Oshkosh, July, 2015

Thus began the era of aircraft flying into a hurricane to take measurements of its strength and movement. P-3 Orions and C-130s have done it now for years, but here we taste the future with details of large and small drones used to study hurricanes up close.

NOAA WP-3D Orion Hurricane Hunter

Global Hawk outfitted for hurricane duty with NOAA

The large drone is the Global Hawk, 44’ long with a wingspan of 130’, weighing as much as 32,000 pounds and able to stay aloft in and above a hurricane for 18 hours. The Global Hawk is big enough to release dropsondes that fall through the storm sending back measurements.

Coyote drone dropped into hurricanes by NOAA

At the other end is the Coyote, a three-foot long handheld drone with a six-foot wingspan weighing just seven pounds and capable of short two-hour flights through a hurricane. The Coyote is itself deployed from a manned P-3 Orion Hurricane Hunter.

The Genesis Part

Along with the personal interest stories and latest technology updates, Mr. Betancourt delivers sound science surrounding the still mysterious forces that coalesce to create a hurricane. He starts with three things we understand, evaporation, convection, and condensation. Water evaporates from the warm ocean surface making the air at the ocean’s surface less dense, causing it to rise – convection. As it rises, the air cools and the evaporated water molecules begin to condense into small droplets. When the droplets grow larger gravity forces them to fall back into warmer air below. When this happens, the droplets partially evaporate, cooling the air around them. This newly cooled air continues to fall, being heavier than the warmer air below. This is a classic downburst of rain and cool air, and it replaces the warm surface air mass that fed convection in the first place. Further evaporation and convection is stopped, and the storm is over.

I knew about evaporation, convection, condensation, even downbursts. But I didn’t know downbursts kill the storm.

What does this have to do with the mystery surrounding the genesis of a hurricane? As a cluster of convective storms come together, the middle layer of air through which rain falls becomes too warm and humid for the raindrops to evaporate, so there is no cooling. The downburst stops, or never really gets going, and rather then being cut off, the storms continue to grow bigger. More evaporation leads to more convection across a broad swath of the ocean surface as the storms coalesce and strengthen. A low pressure center builds as the warm air rises en masse. Cool, dry, and dense air from outside the low pressure center rushes inward from all directions, pushing the warm moist air up faster, allowing more evaporation to occur at the warm ocean’s surface, pushing more convection and ever lower pressure. The inward rushing air speeds up, further increasing surface evaporation and convection, and a positive feedback loop leads to a stronger and stronger storm. Bingo, a hurricane is born.

Unanswered questions include what causes a cluster of storms to coalesce rather than stay isolated and dissipate as they normally do, and what is the role of warm ocean surface waters? But thanks to this well-designed story that focuses on the tools, techniques, and unknowns surrounding the birth of hurricanes, those questions come forth with clarity. That’s how science operates. What’s rare is to see this in-the-field process of scientific investigation form the basic structure of a compelling story.

February’s Bird-of-the-Month

Sunset’s shadow fell about two-thirds of the way up the wall of tall pine trees lining the eastern shore of the lake. I thought it would be neat to get the rising shadow on video, but realized it would progress too slowly to enjoy in real time, perhaps a time-lapse would work. A blustery northwest wind pushed a few swells larger than I usually see on this three-quarter mile long, tree-shrouded lake. A rusty red-brown bird blew in on one gust, soaring down over the lake. Hawk. It pivoted in the winds, dark in the shadows below the sunset. Its swerve sent it streaking back up into the dying sun, shining pale yellow underwings bright against the darkened sky. Another gust and turn and it dived back into the shadows below, swiveling in a tight circle near the shoreline, searching for dinner? Then back up on the next bluster, seeming to enjoy playing the momentary meteor. Better than a time-lapse video of a slowly settling sun, this hawk swiftly banked around for one last flash of yellow before a few shallow beats of brown-red wings sent it up and over the treeline with the sunset. sunset021215 Sunset over the Apex Reservoir 5:45 PM on February 12, 2015

DISRUPTION: A review of the climate change documentary

The video opens with the following quote:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
—Frederick Douglass

This statement and its author tell us much about the documentary that follows. The focus is on action, in keeping with the title itself, Disruption. The target of the action is, clearly in this case, the fossil fuel industry and the political machine that protects and supports it. And quoting Frederick Douglass hints at the central environmental justice theme.

As a scientist, I am nervous when the discussion moves from a consideration of the science to how to achieve political goals. So, yes, I am not thrilled with the documentary’s fuzzy use of the “tipping point” concept, and avoidance of the more accurate term, “positive or reinforcing feedback.” Yes, I am anxious when specific storm events come to characterize climate change rather than global shifts in heat content of the oceans and the atmosphere. Yes, I am concerned with the touch of exaggeration I perceived when methane was described as fifty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (I believe twenty-five times is more like it). And I don’t understand why they left out sea level rise and long-term climate events like drought.

However, as a parent and a new grandparent I am more nervous with the risks we take doing nothing, or doing as little as we have done for the past decade to avert climate change. The risk is significant, the consequences likely to be severe, and many unknowns exist that could send us spiraling down paths to new unpleasant, perhaps catastrophic “normals” we could find difficult to avoid or change. I don’t want that for my children or their children.

The purpose of this documentary was not so much education as motivation. The clear goal was to spur individuals to take part in the upcoming climate change march in New York City, either directly or in their local community. Given the seriousness of the problem and especially our country’s negligence in taking sufficient steps to address climate change, I can live with a little rabble-rousing. I only wish it were done with more dispassionate logic, but passion is what they hope, and need, to arouse. On that point I have no dispute.

Next to large crowds on the streets, neighbor to neighbor efforts to share knowledge of the causes and consequences and solutions to climate change seem important as well. Consider participating in that type of activity in addition to marching in the streets.