Re-Entering Chinese Rocket Booster Lights Up Western United States Skies
On Wednesday night, at around 9:30 p.m. Pacific time, a huge fireball lit up the sky from California to Utah. Moving eerily slowly, bits of it were seen to fall off like sparks as it made its way across the sky.
Twitter lit up like the fireball itself at the time, and I was flooded with replies and queries. One of the first tweets I saw had one of the best videos of the event, taken by Matt Holt in Utah. Watch this:
As soon as I saw this I knew it wasn’t a meteor; that is, not a piece of asteroidal rock or metal coming in from deep space. Those move much more quickly across the sky, and tend not to break up with pieces following it like that.
Clearly, this was human-made space junk. Orbital speeds are much slower than interplanetary speeds (eight kilometers per second for low Earth orbit versus 20 up to 100 kps for meteors). Remember the end of the movie Gravity, when Sandra Bullock comes back to Earth in a Chinese re-entry vehicle, and you see bits of it streaming around her as it burns up? Yeah. Pretty much that.
Not too long after the event the piece of space junk was identified: It was a booster from a Chinese Chang Zheng 7 (Long March) rocket, which re-entered at 04:36 UTC (thanks to my friend and space junk junkie Jonathan McDowell for that info), moving roughly southwest to northeast. It launched on June 25.
Here’s another video, taken by Ian Norman in Alabama Hills, California, in the Sierra Nevadas not too far from the Nevada border (note: some NSFW language):
Pretty amazing. Another person there with Norman made a great video of it as well.
Astrophotographer Jeff Sullivan happened to be shooting near Mono Lake in California and captured it as well as it set over the hills:
Apparently it was spotted as far east as Colorado, which means if I had been outside, I might have seen it, but there’s also a big wildfire a hundred km or so to my northwest that’s covered the sky in smoke, so it’s hard to say if I’d have seen it or not. Oh well.
So, bottom line is that this wasn’t a meteor, it’s not the end of the world, or aliens, or anything like that. I mean, ho-hum, it was just a piece of human-made technology, designed to take objects from the surface of our planet into space, coming back down at 20,000 kilometers per hour, disintegrating and burning up as it rammed through the air 100 km up at transonic speeds.
Y’know, boring stuff like that.
The Corpse of a Dead Star Zaps Its Companion With a Death Ray
Three hundred eighty light-years from Earth lies a very bizarre binary star.
Called AR Scorpii (or AR Sco for short), it’s been known for decades but was masquerading as a relatively humdrum variable, a single star that changes its brightness due to pulsations, literally an expansion and contraction of its size.
But there was something odd about it. Instead of a nice, smooth brightening and dimming, a team of astronomers noticed that it has a lot of scatter in its brightness, a lot of apparently random noise on top of the smooth variations. Not only that, but the noise was only apparent in one part of the cycle, which didn’t make sense.
They decided to take a closer look. And what they found is that AR Sco is not a simple star at all. It’s a binary, with one of the stars being the corpse of a normal star. And not only that, the corpse is feisty, and well-armed: It’s zapping the other star with the stellar equivalent of a death ray.
Man, I love stories like this.
Here’s the deal. AR Sco is two stars orbiting each other. One, the brighter of the two, is a red dwarf with less than half the mass of the Sun. These stars are generally pretty faint and cool.
When the astronomers took a spectrum of the star, they got some surprises. A spectrum is when you break the light up into individual colors, sometimes thousands of them. The result can tell you quite a bit about the object giving off the light. The first interesting bit is that the red dwarf has a lovely, smooth Doppler shift in its spectrum, which means that it’s in orbit around another star. The period of that orbit is just 3.56 hours.
Next, no hint of light from that other star is found. That means it’s very faint. It also has a heckuva gravitational pull, if it can toss around another star in an orbit that’s just a bit longer than the length of a typical Marvel movie.
Also, the red dwarf spectrum is lousy with emission lines. These are bright lines in the spectrum usually associated with fairly hot material, and you don’t usually see them with red dwarfs. These are booming out, though, which is consistent with a very hot nearby source of energy.
That strongly points to the other star being a white dwarf or a neutron star. The first is the core of a star like the Sun after its “normal” life has ended, and it’s blown off all its outer layers. The remaining object is small, about the size of the Earth, but can have from half to about 1.4 times the mass of the entire Sun squeezed down in it!
A neutron star is the core of a more massive star that exploded. It’s even smaller and more massive than a white dwarf. Both are very hot, and could heat the side of the red dwarf facing them, causing it to have emission lines.
Figuring out which one of these two bizarre objects is the key to understanding this system. Happily, there’s more data! And this one’s a doozy.
The entire system pulses in brightness on a very short timescale. The visible light (the kind we see) increases by a factor of 20 times every two minutes. Similar pulses are seen in ultraviolet, infrared, and radio light as well!
The kicker: No X-rays are seen from the system at all. So what does all this mean?
The most likely culprit is that the unseen star is a white dwarf. The pulse period of two minutes is consistent with the spin of a white dwarf, but neutron stars tend to spin much faster. Also, the only way for a neutron star to heat the red dwarf would be for it to be drawing material off the dwarf, which would impact the neutron star and glow. If that were the case, this system would be blasting off X-rays, but none are seen.
So it’s a spinning white dwarf. The fact that we see light emitted from the system across all wavelengths is a pretty strong piece of evidence that it’s coming from what’s called synchrotron radiation: Light emitted by electrons in a very strong magnetic field. That’s consistent with a white dwarf as well, which are known to be pretty strong magnetically.
And now we have all the pieces to the puzzle. The red dwarf is orbiting the white dwarf. The white dwarf’s magnetic field is accelerating electrons up to very nearly the speed of light, and likely emitting them in a beam, like a lighthouse. This whips around the star every two minutes as it spins, and when it passes over the red dwarf it heats the side of the red dwarf facing the white dwarf. When this happens the system blasts out light at much higher rates.
Remember the odd scatter in the light from the red dwarf that started this whole investigation? What we’re seeing there is the inflamed side of the red dwarf facing the white dwarf, the part under the withering blast of the electron beam*! We only see this part of the star when it’s facing us, when the red dwarf is on the other side of the white dwarf (it’s like the phases of the Moon that way). When we see the “back” side of the red dwarf, things look normal. But when the hot part slides into view as the red dwarf circles around the white dwarf, the light we see gets brighter overall but also fluctuates wildly as the star gets zapped by the electron beam.
Yeah, I know. This system is weird. In fact, we’ve never seen anything quite like it. Other binaries with a red and white dwarf don’t behave this way, so we have something special here. And the cool news is it’s fairly close, so we can study it more easily.
And the part that leaves me smiling about all this? This truly peculiar star has been sitting there in our back yard all this time, and astronomers only took a closer look because they saw something odd in the light it was giving off. When they looked closer, they found all sorts of lovely treasures.
What else is out there we haven’t stumbled on yet?
* There is another possibility: The red dwarf is plowing through the white dwarf’s magnetic field, and that’s what’s causing the glow. But that doesn’t explain the two-minute pulse period, so I’m leaning toward the electron death ray hypothesis.
Why Doesn’t Ceres Have Any Really Big Craters?
Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, a world more than 900 kilometers in diameter. It’s so big that planetary scientists tend to refer to it as a protoplanet rather than an asteroid. The latter group consists of pulverized rubble left over from the planetary formation process billions of years ago, but Ceres is different. It got big enough that it was well on its way to being a planet before it ran out of material to build with.
When we look at objects in the asteroid belt (and many moons of large planets), we see them covered in craters. Saturated, actually, with so many craters that a new impactor is likely to erase a few older ones when it hits.
The smaller the crater, the more of them there are. This makes sense; there are only a few objects big enough to create really big craters, but gazillions of smaller ones that can make smaller craters.
Still, pretty much every object we look at has a handful of really monster impact craters, some approaching the diameter of the object itself—remember, a crater will follow the curvature of the surface; Vesta, smaller than Ceres at 525 km across, has a crater 500 km across on it. That crater stretches over about a third (well, about 1/pi) of the surface.
So we expect to see a few very large craters on every object we study.
… except with Ceres we don’t. For some reason, Ceres has a definite paucity of really big craters.
The Dawn mission has been orbiting Ceres since March 2015, taking high-resolution images of the surface (as well as lots of other data). Using these images, scientists basically counted up the craters above a certain size. The biggest craters, named Keran and Yalode, are 280 and 270 km in size. That’s big, but Ceres is 940 km across. Where are the big craters?
And it’s not just the very biggest; the numbers start to drop off at craters wider than about 100 km in diameter. It’s weird, and that’s not just intuition. The numbers and sizes of craters can be predicted using impact models based on the numbers and sizes of asteroids in the main belt. They find that there should be six or so craters bigger than 280 km, but none is found. The chance of that happening is less than one percent! They also expect roughly 40 craters bigger than 100 km, but only 16 are seen. The odds of that occurring are essentially zero.
So what’s going on?
Most likely, Ceres did have huge craters long ago, but something happened to erase them. Either lots of subsequent impacts erased the evidence, or Ceres itself did. By that I mean perhaps the composition of Ceres itself makes it such that huge craters fill in, the material surrounding the crater flowing back into it ad “patching” it.
Under the huge pressure of impact rock can flow pretty well, and Ceres also has a lot of water ice under the surface, so this idea has merit. In fact, the authors of the research indicate this is the most likely solution; the process happens to big craters but not smaller ones, so it seems to be connected to Ceres itself, and not subsequent impacts.
I’ll note that there are three very large (>800 km wide) basins, or depressions, on the surface of Ceres. Those might be impact-related, but it’s difficult to be certain. The authors discuss those, and the idea that they’re so difficult to identify lends credence to the idea that something happened to resculpt them.
As I’ve written about before, looking at craters is a great way to understand what big bodies in the solar system have gone through over the eons. It helps establish a timeline of events across the solar system, and can be used to see how objects compare with one another. We already know Ceres is a bit weird—it has a mantle of briny water ice under the surface that oozes up, sublimates, and leaves behind brighter salty deposits, as one example of its odd behavior—so it’s likely that if we see other unusual things going on, they’re tied together. In this case, it’s due to the internal structure of Ceres.
Ceres is a midway point between the stuff used to make planets and the planets themselves. It’s a frozen remnant straddling that line from 4.5 billion years ago, and studying it tells us more about how our own planet came to be.
Asteroid Collisions Create a Forbidden Crystal
Crystals are pretty. They’re also pretty interesting. They’re found in nature in stunning variety, including all kinds of bizarre shapes. I find a lot of these shapes pleasing aesthetically due to their symmetry. Some are box-shaped, some hexagonal … but they’re all fascinating.
Crystals get this symmetry because of the way atoms interact. They’re like puzzle pieces, connecting only in certain ways. For example, carbon atoms can bond to each other to form sheets that are a single atom thick, but contain zillions of carbon atoms interconnected as hexagons. We call this graphene. But they can also connect to form tetrahedrons, four-faced triangular pyramids. The property of that crystal is very different, so we give it a different name: diamond.
Over the years crystallographers have found that there are four kinds of symmetries natural crystals can have: twofold, threefold, fourfold, and sixfold. These are all based on taking a shape and rotating it 360°. For example, take an equilateral triangle. If you spin it 360° it looks the same. But it also looks the same if you spin it 120° and 240°. So after spinning it all the way around, you get the same pattern three times: a threefold symmetry.
A regular hexagon has six sides, and looks the same after you spin it 60°, 120°, 180°, 240°, 300°, and finally 360°. So it has sixfold symmetry.
Now, you could theoretically have a fivefold symmetry, for an object that goes through multiples of 72° rotations (after five of those you’re back to 360°). But that’s never found in nature. The other symmetries are very strong, and crystals find themselves displaying those instead.
… until recently. In the 1980s scientists were able to create a fivefold crystal in the lab, which they called a quasicrystal. It’s tough to do, but it can be done. Still, the big question remained: Can that be found in nature?
Meteorites generally come from asteroids. Collisions break them up into smaller pieces, and sometimes these fall to Earth. Khatyrka has an unusual composition, and when examined microscopically indeed shows signs that it had undergone collisions while it was still part of its parent asteroid body. The scientists wondered if they could replicate this. They created a series of disks made of the same minerals found in the meteorite and stacked them like coins, making something like a hockey puck. They then used a large gas gun to blast it with a projectile moving at about one kilometer per second, which is a typical (or perhaps somewhat slower) collision speed for asteroids in space.
When they examined the result, they found a quasicrystal with fivefold symmetry, which is now named icosahedrite. The chemical formula for it is Al63Cu24Fe13: 63 atoms of aluminum, 24 of copper, and 13 of iron. No wonder it’s so hard to find it in nature!
It’s not entirely clear in detail how it formed, though sudden compression, heating, and then cooling play a role. On Earth those conditions are very rare, but they’re more common in asteroids. The weird composition of the meteorite plays some part too, having the right combination of minerals to start with such that in the end the quasicrystal is created.
At this you may be wondering, so what? I have a few whats for you. One is that nature is more clever than we are. These crystals were once thought impossible, but here they are. They’re rare, but not impossible. Just very unlikely and need very special conditions to form.
Second, this gives scientists more insight into the literal structure of nature. Perhaps quasicrystals will never have a practical application, but even if they don’t they still help us understand how the world is put together.
And third, this hints at new branches in the science of crystallography. What other crystals exist, what other strange compounds? What uses will these have? Maybe none, at least not in our ability to exploit them for technological advances, say (the way silicon was used to make computer chips as an example). But again, the more we understand the rules governing the Universe, the better we understand it, and that is a goal unto itself.
And hey, if we can figure out how to make transporters or warp drives or light sabers, then all the better. But in the meantime, just gaining knowledge is pretty cool, too.
P.S. I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a little while, but tonight I’m giving a talk about science outreach to members of the American Crystallographic Association at their meeting in Denver, so I thought the time was right.
More Evidence That Dinosaurs Suffered a One-Two Extinction Punch
What killed the dinosaurs?
That was a mystery for decades; when I was a kid, there were tons of ideas but precious little evidence for any of them, making them little more than speculation. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, though, the hypothesis was put forward that a giant asteroid or comet impact did the deed, and over the years evidence mounted.
The impact idea gained wide acceptance, but some details remained stubbornly difficult to explain with a single catastrophic event. Another idea that started gaining traction was that a series of huge and sustained volcanic eruptions occurred for a couple of hundred thousand years before the impact. These were no ordinary eruptions; they formed the Deccan Traps, a soul-crushingly huge region in India consisting of igneous rock layers more than two kilometers deep and covering an area of 500,000 square kilometers.
Half a million square kilometers. Yeah: huge.
This long-lasting eruption did ecological damage across the planet, weakening life and killing species. The clock was ticking on the dinosaurs and so many other species. When the impact came, their time was up.
There’s pretty good evidence that it took both catastrophes to do in the (non-avian) dinosaurs and 75 percent of species on Earth, but a new study provides more support: Scientists found two warming pulses in Earth’s ocean temperatures corresponding to the times of both the volcanic eruptions and the giant impact. This suggests that large-scale global climate change effects were behind the mass extinction.
The scientists examined the shells of bivalves that lived around Seymour Island, near the tip of the peninsula sticking out from Antarctica. This is a good location to do this; the island dates back to before the time of the impact (called the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, or K-Pg boundary—C was already used for something else, so geologists went with K) and fossils from that time are abundant on the island. The deposits layered there provide a continuous sampling from before to after the boundary with little or no jumps in time, so the record is relatively clean.
They looked at bivalves because the critters absorb minerals from the water to make their shells, and the ratios of the amounts of some minerals in the water is temperature dependent. By carefully measuring the minerals in the shells (specifically, the ratio of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16), the scientists can then use them as a proxy for temperature.
What they found was a huge ~8° C (± 3°) leap in water temperature starting around 66.25 million years ago (roughly 150,000 years before the K-Pg boundary), which is when the Deccan Traps eruption started. The water started cooling again, but then there was another sharp rise of a little over a degree right at the K-Pg boundary, corresponding to the impact. That’s on average; some of the bivalve samples showed much larger spikes in temperature.
I’ll admit, the data look a little rough to me. The second pulse has pretty big uncertainty bars, so it’s hard to tell exactly how big it was. The first pulse looks quite real, though, and does support the idea that the Deccan Traps contributed to geologically sudden and biologically deadly worldwide warming.
Interestingly, there was a long, slow warming and cooling period for a couple of million years before all this. While it was a large rise (about 8°) it happened over a long period of time, so the ecological impact wasn’t as bad. A smaller rise can do far more damage if it happens quickly, a point many climate change deniers ignore.
We use the dinosaurs as a metaphor; something slow, plodding, not terribly intelligent, and in imminent danger of going extinct. This new study shows that to still be apt; they were ill-prepared for both sudden climate change and a giant asteroid impact.
Humans are smarter than that. We have a space program, which is useful in both aspects; it can help prevent an impact, and our Earth-observing satellites are telling us very plainly that the climate of our planet is rapidly changing.
We’re not dinosaurs … if we choose not to be.
Time Lapse: The Skies Over Dry Tortugas
How have I never heard of Dry Tortugas National Park until now? It’s a little more than 100 kilometers west of Key West, Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s pretty remote, accessible only by boat or seaplane, and has an interesting history.
It’s the location of Fort Jefferson, a huge brick fortress that was constructed over a period of 30 years in the 19th century but never completed. It was built to protect the busy waters at the entrance to the Gulf and was also a prison—Samuel Mudd was sent there, convicted for conspiring with John Wilkes Booth in the assassination of Lincoln.
It was a miserable place to be incarcerated, with terrible conditions. When I read that I was astounded; that’s bizarre given how gorgeous the waters are there: crystal clear, with coral and abundant fish. Ironically, it’s a tourist destination now known for its beauty.
And it’s even more bizarre when you think about how beautiful the skies are there. With no land except a few small sandy islands all the way out to the horizon, the skies there are fiercely dark at night, and the stars shine with brilliant intensity.
Whoa. Mehmedinovic employed a variety of effects to enhance the scenes, including stacking frames to create star trails that show the motion of the stars in the sky, reflecting the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Because it’s so far south, from this location the Milky Way gets higher overhead than it does from most of the U.S. and really dominates the video when it’s visible.
Mehmedinovic made this as part of the Skyglow Project, an effort he’s undertaking with fellow photographer Gavin Heffernan to visit remote locations and document the skies there. Their goal is to underscore the issue of light pollution and the damage it causes. I support this effort.
Watching this video and reading about the park, I have to add this place to my ever-growing list of spots on Earth I wish to see. It’s no coincidence that many of these are remote, difficult to access, and not well known. All of these are ingredients that add up to a dark sky and spectacular viewing at night. I sometimes wonder if there are enough nights to visit them all.
I’ve written about some of Mehmedinovic’s work before; check these out:
Rosetta’s Final Resting Place Has Been Chosen
On Sept. 30 at approximately 10:30 UTC (06:30 EDT), the Rosetta mission will come to an end.
After many days of slowly approaching the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko—sending images and data back to Earth the whole way—it will settle down onto the surface of the bizarre little worldlet, what the European Space Agency is calling a “controlled impact.” And at that moment, the spacecraft is expected to stop transmitting.
That’s quite a docket. And it performed these tasks amazingly.
Sure, the situation with the Philae lander could’ve gone a lot better. But it did send back a passel of data and a handful of amazing images, and even in failure it succeeded in teaching us more about the surface of a comet.
The final resting place of the Rosetta spacecraft itself has been chosen as well: Ma’at, an area that has some “active regions” sending out plumes of gas. It’s located on the smaller of the comet’s two lobes (the head of the rubber ducky, about halfway from the neck up to the top). It’s good choice; if active regions are still doing their thing, we’ll get some truly amazing close-ups of cometary outgassing, the phenomenon that creates the fuzzy head and long, long tail of a comet.
The ESA hasn’t released too many details just yet, but they expect to have more soon. I’ll let you know when I hear.
Follow Rosetta on Twitter for current info, too.
EPIC Earth: A Year of Days From Space
NASA has released a pretty amazing video: It consists of more than 3,000 images of Earth taken by the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) on the DSCOVR spacecraft.
DSCOVR is in a special orbit, 1.5 million kilometers closer to the Sun than Earth, that keeps it more or less between the Earth and Sun. It faces us, so it always sees the daylit side of Earth, and takes an image every two hours, watching the Earth rotate.
The video shows the Earth over the course of an entire year, and it’s mesmerizing. I suggest you listen to the narration while you watch, done by EPIC lead scientist Jay Herman.
There’s one thing not mentioned in the time lapse that I think is really important. Take a look at these two frames from the video:
The one on the left is from August 2015, and the one on the right from December 2015. See the difference? I put arrows pointing to Australia, and you can see that in December Australia is up “higher.” Note too you can see Antarctica clearly in December, but barely at all in August.
What you’re seeing is literally a graphic demonstration of Earth’s seasons due to its tilt!
If you watch the video again, you’ll see this. It starts in late July, during the Northern Hemisphere summer. At that time, the north pole is tipped toward the Sun (and therefore toward DSCOVR). You can see Greenland go by, and other northern features.
But over the course of weeks and months, the North Pole tips away from the Sun and the South Pole tips toward it. Antarctica becomes visible. Then near the end of the video the North Pole comes into view again.
Mind you, the poles of the Earth aren’t really tipping at all; the axis of the Earth is pretty well fixed in space, and always points in the same direction. But over the course of the year the Earth goes around the Sun, and in the northern summer the pole is aimed “over” the Sun, dipped toward it, and six months later the North Pole is tipped away from the Sun. From DSCOVR’s (and the Sun’s) point of view, it looks like the Earth’s axis is moving, but it’s a matter of perspective.
I suspect this video, combined with a good lesson plan, would work really well in the classroom to show how seasons work. If a student represents the Sun and another student, holding a globe, pretends to be the Earth in orbit, they could physically see how this works, too. A lot of people don’t really understand that it’s the Earth’s tilt that causes the seasons—I’ve explained it many times in talks, and it’s fun to see the look on someone’s face when they really figure it out.
The beauty of this, too, is that this is one of the purposes of the DSCOVR mission: to help people better understand the Earth and our place in the cosmos. The fact that we are on a tilted, spinning, revolving planet affects our lives every single day. If more people understood that, I wonder how that too would affect our lives every day?
These Are the Antiheroes We Don’t Deserve
So you’re anti-reality and anti-human-driven climate change, but you can’t find any way to get your kids to listen to you about it? I have just what you need: antiheroes for the age of anti-science.
Presenting Climate Inaction Figures! Seven of the most oil-fueled deniers of science, ready to take up arms and fight against the experts, bad mouth good data, and confuse the public with verbal legerdemain!
Each comes with his or her own super-powered weapon against reality. There’s Mitch McConnell with his Coal Gauntlet, Ted Cruz and his Anti-Science Shield, Sarah Palin and her Drill Sword, and my personal favorite, James Inhofe and his Spiked Snowball:
I wonder if he’d use that on the floor of the Senate.
I love this idea so much. They even have a commercial:
Sadly, you can’t buy them. Unless you’re a fossil fuel company!
The purpose is to raise awareness about the GOP head-in-the-sand syndrome currently scuttling any attempt to do anything about global warming. But it’s more than that: It’s an attempt to get people to understand that there is something we can do. They started the website the Climate Solution to promote the idea of putting a price on carbon, getting companies that pollute the air with carbon dioxide to pay for that pollution, and creating an incentive to reduce emissions.
As former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains in a short video, this is the same idea that was behind reducing acid rain due to pollution; companies were forced to pay for that pollution and in a few years the problem was greatly reduced. Fossil fuel companies complain about a “carbon tax” now as they did for the acid rain tax then, but in the end it worked out pretty well. A carbon tax will force these companies to look into more efficient renewable energy production, as well they should.
It’s not that easy, of course, but the problem right now is really the Climate Inaction Team. They won’t even allow it to be discussed, and if we can’t get our politicians to at least talk about it, we can be sure it’ll never happen.
So remember that come November. While the world gets ever-hotter, and the U.S. bakes under a massive heat wave, it’s way past time that the folks who get burned are the ones denying it’s even happening. Vote ’em out of office.
March … I Mean April … I Mean May … I Mean June 2016 Is the 6th … I Mean 7th… I Mean 8th … I Mean 9th Temperature Record-Breaking Month in a Row
October. November. December. January. February. March. April. May And now June.
sixth seventh eighth ninth month in a row, we’ve had a month that has broken the global high temperature record.
According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, March April May June 2016 was the hottest
March April May June on record, going back 136 years. It was a staggering 1.28°C 1.11°C 0.93°C 0.79°C above average across the planet.* The previous March April May June record, from 2010 2014 2015, was 0.92° 0.87° 0.86° 0.78° above average. The good news, such as it is, is that unlike previous months, June 2016 didn’t shatter the previous record; it just edged it out in a statistical photo finish. But don’t let that distract you from the important issue: The Earth is way above average in temperature, and overall that temperature is increasing all the time.
Welcome to the new normal, and our new world.
New for July 2016: NASA has created a short video describing its efforts to measure global warming, specifically pointing out that the first six months of 2016 have all been the hottest months on record of their kind:
As you can see from the map above, much of this incredible heat spike is located in the extreme northern latitudes. That is not good; it’s this region that’s most fragile to heating. Temperatures soaring to 7° or more above normal means more ice melting, a longer melting season, loss of thinner ice, loss of longer-term ice, and most alarmingly the dumping of billions of tons of fresh water into the saltier ocean which can and will disrupt the Earth’s ability to move that heat around.
What’s going on? El Niño might be the obvious culprit, but in fact it’s only contributing a small amount of overall warming to the globe, probably around 0.1° C or so. That’s not nearly enough to account for this. It’s almost certain that even without El Niño we’d be experiencing record heat.†
Most likely there is a confluence of events going on to produce this huge spike in temperature—latent heat in the Pacific waters, wind patterns distributing it, and more.
And underlying it all, stoking the fire, is us. Humans. Climate scientists—experts who have devoted their lives to studying and understanding how this all works—agree to an extraordinary degree that humans are responsible for the heating of our planet.
That’s why we’re seeing so many records lately; El Niño might produce a spike, but that spike is sitting on top of an upward trend, the physical manifestation of human induced global warming, driven mostly by our dumping 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.
Until our politicians recognize that this is a threat, and a very serious one, things are unlikely to change much. And the way I see it, the only way to get our politicians to recognize that is to change the politicians we have in office.
That’s a new world we need, and one I sincerely hope we make happen.
*GISS uses the temperatures from 1951–1980 to calculate the average. The Japanese Meteorological Agency uses 1981–2010, which gives different anomaly numbers, but the trend remains the same. Realistically, the range GISS uses is better; by 1981 global warming was already causing average temperatures to rise.
† You may have noticed that the actual temperature anomaly for each month over March through June appears to be dropping; 1.28 to 1.11 to 0.93 to 0.79. That may be due to El Niño weakening, but it’s hard to know over such a short time period. Even if the trend continues, I’d bet 2016 will be the hottest year on record.