Friday Headlines, October 4, 2013
THE LATEST IN THE GEOSCIENCES
IPCC: Same message, more certainty
Lake turns animals into statues Continue reading
Friday Headlines, October 4, 2013
THE LATEST IN THE GEOSCIENCES
IPCC: Same message, more certainty
Lake turns animals into statues Continue reading
We’re all taught in elementary school about the scientific method:
1) Ask a question
2) Make observations and/or do some background research
3) Develop a hypothesis to explain observations
4) Test hypothesis
5) Draw conclusion
6) Report results Continue reading
One of the many projects I work on involves the study of climate change in the fossil record. I’ve put a bit of it on-line here. What I’ve published thus far deals mostly with interpreting general climatic and environmental factors using bulk geochemistry (all isotopes) from rocks and the fossil contained therein. That is to say, I take a big rock or fossil and grind it (or part of it) down into a single sample. I analyze that and call that a ‘average’ for that entire rock layer.
It turns out that clams (and mollusks in general) do a good job of recording environmental signals not just in bulk, but on a fine scale, such that we can see yearly, monthly, even daily records of weather. Continue reading
Friday Headlines, February 22, 2013
THE LATEST IN THE GEOSCIENCES
There are lots of names for it, some good, some bad: Climate Change, Global Warming, Climate-gate, The Climate Hoax. Unless you’ve had your head in the sand, you’ve heard at least one of these things. You know that there is a lot of talk about how every year seems to be warmer than the last – “the warmest on record” – and that there have been a lot of wacky weather phenomena of late, including Hurricane Sandy, heat waves in Australia and Europe, massive wildfires in the western United States. Some reports are pretty alarmist, while others claim that these are merely coincident anomalies that we only know of due to more complete modern measuring techniques and records. Some say that the Earth is warming at an alarming rate and we need to prepare for a “The Day After Tomorrow” type scenario, while others say that we have no need to worry and that it’s all hype. And really, how bad can one or two degrees of temperature increase be?
If you’ve read other posts of mine, you probably know where I stand on this. For this post, my views on the legitimacy of modern global warming are irrelevant. What I want to address here is not whether warming is occurring, but what would happen if those noisy scientists are right and we are heading toward a warmer Earth? What could the possible outcomes of a few degrees of warming be? There are models, of course, all mathematical and computerized, that show where things will get wetter or drier and such, but let’s think about something more real.
What if the hype is correct and we are warming? What will happen if we do nothing to mitigate it?
The fossil record provides an opportunity to look at past climate changes and see what effects these changes had on the animals that were alive during that time. The fossil record shows that there have been multiple episodes of global warmth in Earth’s history, much warmer than is projected as a possible outcome of today’s warming. But being warm and warming rapidly are two different things. Gradual warming occurs slowly enough that organisms can adapt. But modern warming is occurring within a single to just a few generations of animals, much too quickly for adaptation to occur. What happens then?
Does the fossil record capture any past episodes of rapid global warming? If so, what happened?
The short answer is ‘yes,’ and it was bad news for many animal groups.
The specific example I will use is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). This is an episode of global warming that occurred about 55 million years ago (about 10 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct). The entire PETM lasted 150,000 to 200,000 years, with the warming occurring over the span of about 10,000 years. Depending on what you read, the warming was between 5-9° Celsius (9-16° F). Compare that with modern projections of warming of 4° Celsius (or more) in a few hundred years. Warming rates are much faster today than they were at the PETM, and rates at the PETM were much, much faster than most other rates of climate change recorded in the rock record.
The warming associated with the PETM is particularly interesting for two reasons. 1) It’s thought that the warming was due to an increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, much like today’s warming. 2) Mammals were around then, and the dominant large-bodied animals living on land. We can look at the record of change in mammals at the PETM as an analogue for what might happen if modern global warming is ‘true.’
So, what happened?
The chart above shows a lot of things. It was published in 2003 in Geological Society of America Special Paper 369. It is available here, from Philip Gingerich’s personal web page focusing on his research on the PETM. I suggest reading the entire paper to get the full context, but for the sake of this post focus only on the columns on the right hand side. There are two columns labeled ‘stable isotopes,’ and a series columns (some highlighted in green and others in red) that represent the stratigraphic ranges of specific vertebrate groups. The heavy red line marks the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, and the box in the stable isotope column encloses the isotopic evidence of the PETM – a negative spike in carbon isotopes and a positive spike in oxygen isotopes. It is the positive spike in oxygen that provides the evidence of warming. The negative spike in carbon provides information about the source of the warming (carbon dioxide in the atmosphere). The details of how the isotopes provide such information is a topic for a different blog post.
Focus now on the highlighted vertebrate groups. In green are the Plesiadapidae. Plesaidapids are a group of mammals thought be closely related to modern primates. They go extinct at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. Modern primates, highlighted in red, appear after the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. It’s possible, then, the the PETM, was responsible for the extinction of the the plesiadapids and appearance of modern primates. Perhaps one evolved into the other, we are not sure at this point, but the loss of one and appearance of the other coincides with the PETM.
You also see, highlighted in red, the first appearance of the groups Perissodactyla and Artiodactyla. These are all the modern hoofed mammals. (Perissodactyla includes horses, rhinos, and tapirs. Everything else is in the Artiodactyla.) It is the appearance of the first perissodactyl, Sifrippus (also called Hyracotherium or Eohippus) that defines the beginning of the Wasatchian North American Land Mammal “age” which is thought to be coincident with the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. Prior to the PETM, there were no true hoofed mammals, though it’s though that the ancestors to perissodactyls and artiodactyls could be found in a group of mammals loosely called the condylarths. Condylarths dwindled after the PETM, to be replaced by the recognizable, modern groups of mammals.
Thus it’s possible that rapid global warming at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary resulted in the rapid evolution of mammalian species, resulting in the loss of many groups that had previously been dominant, and their replacement with new groups. This is a big change. This is not an example of just a few species going extinct. We’re talking about entire orders of mammals here, including the Order Primates, of which we are a member.
Now consider again that warming at the PETM took place over several thousands of years. Modern global warming is occurring over several hundreds of years. If warming at the PETM forever altered mammalian history, what would modern global warming do? Perhaps we should think about this before we say that there’s no need to be concerned.
This post has been translated into Spanish by Jorge Moreno-Bernal, a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. See the translation here. How cool is that?
One of the things that comes up when someone talks about climate change is the apparent cyclicity of climatic changes. The Earth has been through several rounds of ice ages and warming in recent millennia, how is this new episode of this warming not just part of that? Well, let’s look at the cycles.
What we see here is a repeating 100 thousand-year cycle of glaciations and warming. We’re in a warm spot, having just come out of an ice age about 10,000 years ago. If we look at the pattern for the last three deglaciations, we see sudden, rapid warming, followed by cooling into another ice age. We’ve already warmed, and have been warm for a while, so we should be cooling down now. That’s why, back in the 1970’s, people were being warned about the coming ice age.
According to the glacial cycles, that’s where we should be heading. Things should be getting cooler. And they were up until about 50 years ago. Then we started seeing increases in annual temperatures. When looking at this graphically, we get what has been referred to as the “Hockey Stick.” You can read more about where the Hockey Stick comes from here.
What causes these glacial cycles? What is this 100,000 year periodicity? This pattern is caused by Milancovitch Cycles, changes in the intensity of the sun that hits the Earth due to properties of the Earth’s orbit and rotation about its own axis. There are three (or four) parts to Milancovitch Cycles.
The first of these is an approximately 21,000 year cycle called precession. This is where the Earth’s rotation axis wobbles, much like how a top wobbles as it spins. This changes the position in the Earth’s orbit at which the equinoxes take place.
Obliquity is a 41,000 year cycle in which the tilt of the Earth’s axis varies from 21.5° to 24.5° from perfectly vertical relative to the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. With greater tilt, the difference between the seasons becomes greater.
The shape of the Earth’s orbit around the sun shifts from being closer to circular to being more oval. This shift is called eccentricity and varies on scales of 100,000 and 400,000 years.
Each of these (precession, obliquity, and eccentricity) have an effect on the amount of sun (insolation) that hits the Earth and therefore Earth’s climate. The term for this is solar forcing. We can take the individual impacts on solar forcing for each of these and add them up to summarize solar forcing at any given time. We can then compare this, and the individual forcings, to the pattern of glaciations. What we see is an approximately 100,000 year cycle of glaciations, which coincides with minima (or low insolation) in the 100,000 year eccentricity cycle.
As we are approaching a minimum in the eccentricity cycle, we might expect to be heading into an ice age – though it might be a few thousand years off. What we are seeing instead is rapid warming. Perhaps we should be concerned.
The Beware of Movies! series is meant to point out some of the scientific inaccuracies of popular movies, specifically in points related to the geological sciences.
This post will point out the major inaccuracies portrayed in movies about climate change, and how it would affect the Earth.
Climate change is a sensitive topic. It’s become politically charged. It’s now taboo to talk about it in polite company. I’m not here to incite riots. I have my opinions that, though I won’t state them explicitly, they’ll probably be obvious. My objective here is to talk about how we understand climate change, how we can infer that it is happening. I want to demystify all the numbers and data points and graphics that we’re bombarded with every day. Continue reading
There is a lot of discussion about climate change these days. It’s quite a polarizing topic, actually. It’s astounding to me to see how science – or a scientific result – is suddenly a taboo topic in polite company, just like politics and religion. It upsets me. Why are we not interested in the science? Why can’t I talk about it?
Well, I talk about it anyway, at least to those who are interested in listening. If people want to argue, then I usually shut down. It’s not that I don’t feel that such discussion isn’t worthwhile, and with some people I will try to be engaged, but honestly, most of the arguments stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works and how scientists look at data. It’s frustrating, and it’s not something easily explained. There’s also a certain amount of mistrust of science, which I find disturbing.
Rather than trying to explain the entire body of climate science, perhaps I’ll take a moment to talk about one aspect of the climate debate. One thing that some argue is completely bunk.
The Hockey Stick.
Most everyone has heard of this. I’m not talking about the game of Hockey, here. I’m talking about the Hockey Stick. Considered by some to be the smoking gun proving global warming and by others as manipulated data. The gist of it is that if we can look at average annual temperatures over the last several hundred years, we see that there’s some fluctuations around an average, but that the last few decades have been getting warmer and warmer, more so than at any other time on record. This, then, is the rapid global warming that everybody is arguing about (but that you don’t talk about with your family at Christmas).
Well, where does this come from? When you see images of the Hockey Stick, you see time along the bottom and you expect to see temperature on the vertical axis, so that when the lines go up, you’re looking at warmer temperatures. What the vertical axis shows, however, is what’s called the “temperature anomaly” (although it is, at least, labeled in degrees). What the heck is that?
The temperature anomaly is the difference between any given year’s average annual temperature and the average of all the annual temperatures over a specified period of time (sometimes from 1951-1980, sometimes from 1902-1980, sometimes something else, always defined). During that span of time, temperatures were relatively constant. The decision to use this period of time as a baseline by which to compare everything else was arbitrary. (Or I assume, so. I wasn’t there when this decision was made!) The fact is, they just needed a ‘zero’ point against which to compare everything else. Presumably, records during that period of time were precise and accurate enough for the researchers to be confident in them.
PRECISION and ACCURACY: These are two terms that are sometimes confused for one another, but in science have very specific meanings. Accuracy is getting the right answer. It’s hitting the bullseye. In the case of temperature, it reflects how correct the temperature reading on any given thermometer is. Precision describes how well the same answer can be found. If you shoot ten arrows at a target, precision is about how close together those ten arrows are. In science, it’s about putting the same thermometer in the same freezer on different days and getting the same temperature reading, or perhaps putting ten seemingly identical thermometers in the freezer at once and seeing how similar all the readings are. Precision is shown on graphs (like the Hockey Stick) with error bars or confidence envelopes.
What’s important is to realize that something can be precise and not accurate and vice versa. I can shoot ten arrows at a target and they can all clump to the upper right of the bullseye, which I was aiming for. That’s precise, but not accurate. Or I can shoot ten arrows and have them spread out, surrounding the bullseye. In this case, they’re accurate, but not precise.
Precision and accuracy is a big deal in science, and particularly in climate science. Both of these are called into question when the legitimacy of the interpretation of the Hockey Stick is discussed.
In order to calculate a temperature anomaly, of course, one must first come up with a value for average annual temperature. For more recent years, this comes from instrumental records, aka, thermometers. One of the difficulties faced, however, is how to calculate a global average annual temperature, especially when temperatures vary all over the world, from day to day and season to season. And really, how can you compare annual temperatures in the arctic with annual temperatures on the equator? And then, throw on top of that precision issues with the thermometers themselves. Geez! How do you handle all those data?
Well, it’s complicated. The first thing you have to do is normalize everything. Normalizing means to set everything up onto the same scale so that they can be compared easily. This is where the temperature anomaly comes in. By using an average of a particular set of years and then showing all your annual weather data relative to that, it becomes possible to compare Arctic temperatures with equatorial temperatures. In the Arctic, a temperature anomaly of 1 degree might mean a change from -5 to -4 degrees, whereas on the Equator, it’s a change from 72 to 73 degrees. By normalizing using the temperature anomaly, we can easily see that the temperature went up one degree in both places.
The normalized anomalies can be averaged for specific regions (to help even out the differences between regions that have tons of thermometers and regions that don’t), and then for the whole world to get at a global temperature change. That’s what we’re really interested in.
When you calculate all these averages, you can also calculate the variation of the values. For example, in the Arctic, the anomaly could be 2 degrees, whereas on the Equator it could be 1 degree. You can calculate the average (1.5) but also calculate some statistics to represent the variation. This is where error bars come in. Your average is 1.5, but the range is from 1 to 2 degrees, so you draw a little bar on the graph representing that. (This example is not real, of course. Standard deviation or standard error would be used in a real scientific study, but you get the idea.) The error bars can also be extended (or shortened) depending upon the known precision of the thermometer used.
What you wind up with is a lovely graph of squiggly lines representing the global temperature anomaly over time. A positive anomaly means warmer temperatures than in times past. A negative anomaly means colder temperatures. The Hockey Stick shows warmer temperatures than in the past, and things seem to be getting warmer.
One of the problems with the typical image of the Hockey Stick, when it’s flashed up in the news is that it almost always lacks the error bars. The error bars are important. When looking at instrumental records (thermometers), for which we have data going back into the late 19th century, we can see that the error bars get smaller and smaller over time. This is due to improvements in the technology of temperature measurement. But the errors are still there.
Error bars give you a possible range within which the actual ‘real’ measurement might be. That is to say, that even though there’s a point on the plot, it might not be in exactly the right spot. The error bars give you a measure of how inaccurate the data point might be. It’s possible for data points to show a nice complex pattern, but to have error bars so big, that the pattern might not be real.
I like to think of error bars as bumpers. Imagine that you put a string into the plot between the error bars and pull it tight. If it can make a flat line between the error bars, then the data don’t show any pattern. If you pull the string tight and it still has bends and peaks in it, then those features probably represent true variations.
In the case of the Hockey Stick, the upturn of the temperature anomalies in the last few decades is pretty compelling. With error bars, the increase in temperature anomalies might be a little smaller, but it is still there.
But what does this mean? We see an increase in the temperature anomaly over the last few decades, but really, this plot doesn’t look so much like the Hockey Stick you’ve seen elsewhere. The full-blown Hockey Stick goes back about 600 years, but we didn’t have thermometers way back then. How can we measure mean annual global temperatures from that far back.
Alas, that’s a topic for another post.
The Day After Tomorrow
Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal
Premise: When the world’s ocean circulation patterns are disrupted by melt water due to global warming, the Earth is plunged into a sudden ice age.
There’s a fair amount of good in this movie, and a fair amount of hoo-hah as well. I’ll focus on the Earth Science problems that I have at least a little expertice in. I’m not a meteorologist, so I can’t say a lot about the huge storms that play an enormous role in the movie (though I suspect they fall into the category or hoo-hah).
Ice core drilling: This is, in fact, a common means by which we have learned a great deal about Earth’s past climate. And we can go back ten thousand years quite easily. The ice-coring set-up that they have is quite unlike any I’ve ever seen, and I really don’t think any intelligent scientist would be coring on an ice shelf, but for the sake of a movie… ok.
A two-century long ice age that started 10,000 years ago: There was a substantial climate change that occurred ten thousand years ago. It was warming, though, not an ice age that lasted 200 years. This was about the time that humans found themselves in North America and was also about the same time that all the cool ‘megafauna’ went extinct (like mammoths, mastodons, woolly rhinos, ground sloths, etc.) There is a great deal of debate over whether it was the appearance of humans or this climate change that did in the megafauna.
Greenhouse gasses from ice cores: This is actually a commonly used research track by paleoclimatologists. In fact, we have two such scientists in our tiny department here at the University of Rochester. Atmospheric gasses are trapped in snow which is later buried and turns to ice in the massive glacial sheets of the Arctic and Antarctic. These gasses can be retrieved and studied, providing information about past concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
By the way, we can assign ages to different parts of ice cores by simply counting annual rings. During the winter, snow tends to be clean, but in the summer there tends to be a lot of dust in the snow. Each year, then, there is a layer of clean ice and dirty ice in an ice core. We can count these (like tree rings) to know the age of a part of an ice core. Pretty cool, eh?
Ocean circulations: What the main character says about the disruption of ocean currents by the introduction of fresh water (from melting ice sheets), which then leads to climate change is actually an accepted hypothesis. It has been put forward by Wally Broeker, one of the most respected paleooceanographers in the world.
Unfortunately, the movie does make a mistake here. Not a severe one, but I’m sure Wally himself would facepalm. They talk about the North Atlantic Current – which is a real thing – being shut down by all the meltwater. The North Atlantic Current is a surface current in the ocean. It is the continuation of the Gulf Stream, which runs north along the eastern margin of North America. The Gulf Stream plus the North Atlantic current is what keeps the climate of Europe so pleasant despite being so far to the North. Surface currents, like the North Atlantic Current, are driven by wind.
If you look at the drawings that the main character of the film is referring to, as well as Wally Broeker’s work, you’ll realize that the currents that would be disrupted by the freshwater are not surface currents at all. While it might affect the North Atlantic Current, the influx of meltwater would more likely disrupt the deep ocean currents, called “Thermohaline Circulation.” These currents are driven by differences in temperature (Thermo-) and salt-content (haline) of the water. Saltier water sinks, as does colder water. This global circulation keeps the ocean water mixed from north to south and from ocean to ocean. An influx of freshwater from melting glaciers in the north and south would stop the downwelling in those areas, which would disrupt this circulation. This, it is widely accepted, could have a profound effect on global climate.
Water inundating New York City: This is a head-scratcher. Sure, if sea-level rises, then water could rush into the city. And now, post Hurricane Sandy, we know that water can make it quite a ways into the city. There is a lot of water tied up in the world’s ice sheets, too, so an immense sea level rise is not out of the question if we melted all of the ice. But the converse is true, too. In an ice age, sea level can drop because all the Earth’s water is tied up in ice sheets at the poles. Somehow, I suspect that these two competing phenomena would have prevented the great wall of water that struck New York in the movie. But it was pretty cool to have a massive ship floating in front of the library, eh?
Only storms in the Northern Hemisphere: Was anyone bothered by this? Why wouldn’t there be enormous storms in the Southern Hemisphere too? How come Australia gets out Scot-free? This actually might not be that big of a problem. It seems that the great ice ages did not affect the Southern Hemisphere in the same way as the Northern Hemisphere. There were no huge ice sheets in the south. Part of this is because there really isn’t much land mass in the south. There are some tall mountains that even now have glaciers that may have expanded during the northern ice ages, but it seems that “ice ages” as we think of them were a primarily northern phenomenon. There’s active research on that topic going on right now. So it’s possible that a new ice age might only affect the Northern Hemisphere.
An ice age in a week? I think this is fundamentally the biggest problem with “The Day After Tomorrow.” The premise is ok, and the idea that run-away greenhouse gasses could cause major climate disruptions isn’t that far off, but that an ice age can begin and coat much of the Northern Hemisphere in ice in less than a week is a unlikely. Years is a better scenario, and we’d probably have a little warning. Can can observe the flow of the thermohaline currents. We’d see them stopping most likely. Alas, I don’t think that there’s a thing in the world we could do to re-start the flow should it stop. Climatic disruption is the most likely outcome.
Earlier this week, Hurricane Sandy (an anomalous late-season hurricane) made landfall in the United States near Atlantic City, NJ (also anomalously far North). Because of the timing of Sandy (near Halloween), and it’s coincidence with another strong system moving across North America from the West, the weather event was given the moniker “Frankenstorm”.
This storm was a big deal, and my heart goes out to everyone adversely affected by its aftermath. My own heart broke with each image the popped up on my Twitter-feed that night. Yet there were some heartwarming stories, and certainly some good will come from this unfortunate event.
Much of the discussion of Sandy revolved around how unusual it was and how it might be related to global warming. I even got a call from a local journalist wondering if I would be willing to comment on that. (I said no, because it’s really outside of my realm of expertise, but hopefully might be contacted later regarding ancient episodes of global warming which really are my specialty.) There are plenty of web resources on the topic, which cover that question better than I can. This is one of my favorites.
This is all interesting, but is not why I was kind of excited about Sandy (in the way only a geochemist can be). For me, Sandy provides an opportunity to verify what we think we can learn about ancient weather patterns using chemical tracers in rocks. That is, Sandy is a natural isotopic experiment. I’m not the only person who thought this. Gabriel Bowen of the University of Utah thought of it first. I’ll explain below.
Before you get upset about the term ‘isotope,’ remember that all atoms are isotopes and that not all isotopes are radioactive. Most atoms are ‘stable’ meaning that they don’t undergo radioactive decay. It’s just that the term ‘isotope’ makes people think of nuclear reactors and meltdowns (and somehow Homer Simpson).
So then, what do I mean by an isotopic experiment? I’ll save the details of how isotopes work for a later blog post, and just start with a simpler story of just water. Different isotopes have different masses, or weights. Most water molecules have a weight of 16 atomic mass units. Let’s just say most water has a mass of 18. Some water molecules have a mass of 19, where one of the hydrogen atoms is ‘heavy’ (but stable) and some molecules have a mass of 20, where the oxygen atom is ‘heavy’ (but also stable).
When the mass of the molecule is heavier than most (19 or 20 versus 18) the molecule is, well, heavy! That means that if water evaporates, the lighter (mass 18) molecules evaporate first, because they’re lighter, leaving the heavier water (mass 19 and 20) behind in the puddle. This seems very common-sense, and it is. Vapor that evaporates from puddle is lighter than the water that remains in the puddle and, in fact, the remaining water gets heavier. This process is called fractionation.
Now, if we have a bunch of water vapor, like a cloud for example, and the vapor condenses, the heavier water condenses first and falls as rain (because it’s heavier). The rain is heavier than the vapor in the cloud and the cloud’s water gets lighter and lighter as it rains more. Again, this is fractionation.
When we’re talking about isotopes, we use this crazy delta notation. If we want to say something about the oxygen isotopes in water we use δ18O. For hydrogen, we use δD or δ2H. The number we report is really a ratio, but we tack on the permil symbol (‰) to make the numbers easy to talk about (again, this is something to talk about later). What’s important is that if the delta value is more positive, that means that the water is heavier. If the delta value is more negative, the water is lighter. Everything is measured relative to ocean water which has been assigned a delta value of zero for both hydrogen and oxygen. δ18O = 0‰ and δD = 0‰ for ocean water.
A hurricane, like Sandy, gets all its water from the evaporation of the ocean – so the clouds forming over the ocean will have delta values more negative than zero. As long as the storm is over the ocean rain from the hurricane and falls back on the ocean and new water evaporates keeping the isotopic value of the clouds stable. But once the storm moves over land, the addition of new water vapor from the ocean stops, but lots of water is lost as rain.
The result is that as a storm moves across the landscape, the isotopic value of the cloud gets lighter and lighter over time. The precipitation coming from the cloud also gets lighter and lighter over time, though it’s always heavier than the cloud it came from.
This is called Rayleigh Distillation, and is one of the basic concepts in isotope geochemistry. It seems pretty straight forward and reasonable, and has been used as the basis of isotopic interpretation for many years. But it’s been difficult to test… Until now. With electronic messaging and, more importantly, social media, it is now possible to recruit a fleet of people of a broad geographic area with only a few hours notice to collect rain samples that can then be measured for their isotopic values. We can finally ground-truth this important hypothesis!
This was tried for the first time with a storm called “Snowzilla” (now less creatively called the ‘Groundhog Day Storm’) that happened in 2011. Snow fractionates from clouds just like rain does, so would be expected to show a similar isotopic pattern as rain water. When this huge storm that hit much of the eastern United States, and Gabriel Bowen, then at Purdue University, put out a call for people to collect snow samples and send them to him. The results are detailed here.
Looking at the figure, we see that the isotopic values shift from more positive in the southeast to more negative in the northwest. From this, it’s easy to see that the vapor moved in from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
What might we expect to see from Sandy? Well, this time when the call went out, Dr. Bowen asked participants to collect samples over specified time intervals and to record those times, meaning that it will be possible to make an isotope movie and perhaps watch Sandy move across the continent.
So… Why does this matter? Oxygen isotopes from rain can be preserved in rocks. As rain water is exposed to carbon dioxide and percolates through the soil, it forms carbonate (CO32-)which is then bound into carbonate minerals like calcite. This calcite can form little nodules in the soil or a calcrete layer. The oxygen in the carbonate records the oxygen in the water (with a little more fractionation). Later – as in millions of years later – geoscientists like me can analyze the oxygen from the carbonate and get back to the original distribution of oxygen isotopes in the rain water. From there, we can then figure out ancient air-flow patterns around the world.
With this knowledge, we can start answering other questions. How does the uplift of high mountains (like the Himalayas) affect global air flow? What happens to air circulation when climate changes rapidly, whether it be warming or cooling? We can address these questions and more, which might help us understand what the future might bring if projections of warming bear out.
In the meantime, I’m a participant in the project myself and am still collecting waters. Sandy’s not quite dead, though her destructiveness is well past. We’ll see what the data tell when all is said and done!
Here they are: the sample set from my house. I’m done sampling, so the analyses can begin!