Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Politically and Scientifically Correct

Our unusual post title needs some explanation. The endless pronouncements of politicians of both parties are fraught with (what else?) political opinion. Many modern US and world residents long to be on the ‘correct’ side of politics. Their desire is to be recognized as ‘politically correct.’ Many modern US national and world residents also long to be ‘scientifically correct,’ owing to their profound respect for science. If people are both politically and scientifically correct in their beliefs, so much the better! Often there is inadequate definition of what we mean by ‘politically’ correct. In addition, many do not know exactly what is meant by ‘scientifically’ correct.

Political correctness has become more popular and recognized as a social reality in the past several decades. Initially actions or statements deemed offensive to minorities or other disadvantaged segments of society were avoided. In more recent times the tendency has expanded to endorse wider movements such as activism on social issues, including environmental activism. Action to remediate climate change has become one such movement.

Truth about our climate and how humans interact with it is, or should be, a topic of immense concern to Christians who believe God created our planet with wondrous complexity—thousands of interacting functional climate features working together for the benefit of all living creatures. This includes humanity, creatures He created “in His image.” The Creator’s mandate to subdue the Earth (Gen. 1:28) demands definition and careful analysis. Humanity should lovingly care for Earth as the venue for our physical existence. Sadly, human caretakers of Earth have not always wisely cared for its welfare. Inherent in this fact is the truth that human welfare has suffered.

The responsibility to care for our planet has become more challenging as global population has increased from one billion to 7.5 billion since 1800. At present the paramount environmental issue is undoubtedly climate change. The issue has become inexorably connected with the slight planetary warming related to society’s release of CO2 from the consumption of fossil fuels during the last century.

For some environmental activists CO2 has become the ‘naughty child’ in the family of compounds because it contains carbon. For this reason it has acquired a bad name among the elements in some environmental circles. Significant attention is devoted to ‘curbing carbon pollution.’ In the last two decades terms such as emissions assessments, carbon accounting, and ecological/carbon footprint have become popular. Players such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have become politically correct but in some cases scientifically uncertain or even incorrect. They gained support from a surprising 2007 US Supreme Court decision that permitted the EPA to declare CO2 a pollutant. No doubt the five judges who approved that decision believed they were scientifically correct. The next president rigorously imposed regulations on ‘carbon pollution.’ Many scientists have since refuted the opinion that CO2 is a pollutant.

Life on Earth is carbon-based life. It comprises nearly half of all biomass. The human body is over 18% carbon. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, behind hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. While recognizing that CO2 is a greenhouse gas contributing to slight warming of our atmosphere in recent times, we have been researching the effects of increased CO2 and the results of atmospheric warming resulting from it. In general, we decry the fear engendered by the idea that CO2 is a pollutant. Concepts such as ‘carbon footprints’ still dominate the journalistic landscape. The footprints are difficult to define, explain, and regulate.

We are thankful to our Creator for the element carbon. Ten million carbon compounds are known to man. Carbon, therefore, is known as the ‘King of the elements.’ Without CO2 in our atmosphere life on Earth would not exist. We advocate studying the wondrous role of carbon without a preconceived negative view of this element. We trust this post inspires readers to further investigate a fascinating issue which remains open and unsettled. Sound thinking is superior to political or scientific correctness.

Our readers may enjoy our previous post from 3/19/12. It does not speak about the political correctness of modern society’s responses to carbon. Instead, it addresses the science of carbon as a critically vital element for sustaining all living things. We link the post below:





Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Climate Change Catastrophism

Buzz phrases come and go in our language. The Green New Deal is a notable example. The youngest member of the US Congress burst upon the national scene in November, 2018 commanding unprecedented attention with a proposal of Green New Deal legislation. It suggests sweeping changes in our social, economic, and financial fabric. Senate leader Mitch McConnell presented a “motion to proceed to consider” proposal on the Green New Deal. Not one senator voted yes; instead 57 senators voted “No” and 43 senators voted “present” in an effort to avoid a political trap.

The Green New Deal would ban consumption of virtually all fossil fuels in an effort to combat climate change. Otherwise, the world will come to an end within 12 years we are warned. We are counseled that worry concerning the Green New Deal’s cost— trillions of dollars—pales to insignificance in the face of the imminent demise of humanity.

Climate change’s supporting backbone consists of a devout fear of CO2. The modest amount of atmospheric warming since 1900 is due in large part to the effects of this trace atmospheric gas. An all night gathering of thirty Democratic Senators in their legislative chamber in 2014 was termed a climate talkathon. Their many utterances were apocalyptic. Currently a parallel exists in the 2018-2019 warnings that the Earth will end in 12 years. We link our previous post on “Climate Confusion.” It stresses a number of climate issues pertinent to the points raised in our current post: 

Our science/faith blog has never proposed that climate change issues are not important, especially in view of numerous weather and climate related manifestations which suffuse our existence. Quite the opposite: for human residents of Earth, frequent change in weather is a given as are ubiquitous changes in climate. As we survey eons of human history it is evident that Earth is a dynamic planet owing to captivating geological and atmospheric phenomena which sustain human flourishing in both short and long term. We have exulted in Earth’s dynamism, especially in relation to climate. Indeed, this characteristic has enabled a flourishing human existence.

We have uncovered numerous past posts where we used the term ‘dynamic’ to describe our home planet. In terms of the definition of dynamic (changing, active, powerful, energetic, vital) we have always used the term in a positive, approving sense. Even seldom experienced destructive weather events may often be described as dynamically positive in a long term climate perspective.

Our concern is the frequent use of the term ‘climate change’ used pejoratively. We need to ask ourselves how often ‘climate change’ is used by journalists in any other sense. Virtually all unwanted and undesirable weather and climate events is attributed to climate change. Yet historically, climate change has worked for both the benefit and detriment of the human race. In a future post we will deal with some beneficial effects of climate change as well as some of its detrimental effects. We question whether aggressive mitigation of warming might be more harmful than non-mitigation.

Stephen Jackson, writing for openDemocracy, presented an insightful thesis with the title “Catastrophism is as much an obstacle to addressing climate change as denial.” Three quotes from his article follow. He reports the fears of climate change alarmists who wonder, “Would a sufficient level of dread, spread widely enough, cause people to agree on a course of action?” Jackson continues to report that alarmists ask, “Shouldn’t we all muster the courage to face the terrifying calamity that lurks on the horizon?” Finally, in his tirade against spreading fear he repeats his thesis title, “Catastrophism is as much an obstacle to addressing climate change as denial.”

Over thirty US senators expressed an inordinate amount of dread in their 2014 climate talkathon. Recently the dread has been exacerbated by several current US senators who are running for president of the United States of America! Their Green New Deal legislation would set out “a 10-year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society at a scale not seen since World War 2 to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and create economic prosperity for all.” 

The prediction of terrifying climate catastrophe lurking on our nearby horizon should be accompanied by the diligent prayers of Christians that divine wisdom will prevail in the minds and actions of our political leaders and climate scientists.

Dozens of dire predictions have been proposed and later forgotten with respect to the healthy survival of humanity. Some predictions result from errant science, others from errant theology, and still others from general ignorance. Earth’s climate system has multiple causes and multiple effects. We quote one of several ‘denials’ of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation: “We deny that an infinitely wise Designer, infinitely powerful Creator, and perfectly faithful Sustainer of the Earth would have made it susceptible to catastrophic degradation from proportionately small causes, and consequently we deny that wise environmental stewardship readily embraces claims of catastrophe stemming from such causes.”   



Saturday, March 30, 2019

Symphonic Science

Music Directors often schedule program selections based on underlying themes to heighten audience interest. So it was with our most recent Dubuque Symphony Orchestra program. Many composers gain inspiration for their musical compositions by blending natural, historic, visual, and emotional dimensions with their creative offerings. In this way, music is a divine gift for composers and listeners alike enabling them to express their innermost perceptions and longings.

In our neighborhood the Dubuque, IA Symphony Orchestra has just completed the last of four concerts in their 2018/2019 season. The themes were “Earth, Air, Fire, and Water”—one concert for each of the four “classical elements” traditionally originating with thinkers in the Greek culture of 2500 years ago. During the March 24 concert “Water” was celebrated.      

Many other cultures in the ancient world speculated that different types of matter were composed of just a few simple elements. By the 18th century, scientific thinking had advanced concerning the physical properties of matter. Since the onset of the Scientific Revolution dating back to the 16th century, the formal term “scientist” originated more recently, 200 years ago. Prior to this, practitioners of science were known as “natural philosophers.” In the 18th century, natural philosophers began to use empirical methods based on formal experience and experimentation to investigate, identify, and isolate elemental substances. About 22 chemical elements were discovered during that century. In the 19th and 20th centuries knowledge of the identity of chemical elements increased dramatically. Now about 100 chemical elements are known—unique substances whose atoms comprise all known substances. There are millions of physical mixtures of these 100 elements and thousands of compounds composed of chemical combinations of the same 100 elements.

Greek philosophical thinkers proposed existence of only four classical elements—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. These concepts preceded proposals of scientists who endorse modern chemical concepts of 100 elements, each composed of different submicroscopic atoms. How far has humanity’s scientific knowledge come in 2.5 millennia!

With the introduction above, we return to our symphony orchestra concert science experience. Our talented and personable director, William Intriligator, introduced the concert theme—Water—reminding the audience that nearby areas of the Midwest to our west and north are experiencing a lot of water this spring. Snowmelt has combined with heavy rains due to a rare meteorological event called a “bomb cyclone.” In some areas of the US Midwest the floods have been historic and tragic. Planetary climate ordinarily provides the human population with “a place to thrive.” We acknowledge that on rare occasions meteorologic events have severe impacts. Notwithstanding, many past posts have touted our planet as “a place to thrive.” 

The theme On Water in the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra concert #4 brought to mind many reminders of scientific truth, sometimes with theological overtones. My personal enjoyment of the performance took me beyond mere passive listening. The program included well-known compositions with a water theme by Johann Strauss, G. F. Handel, Michael Daugherty, Bedrich Smetana, and Ottorina Respighi. We continue our discussion of “symphonic science” below, highlighting three dimensions of science which came to mind as my wife and I savored the “On Water” program from our balcony seats: (1) Consciousness, (2) Creativity, and (3) Sensory Perception.

Consciousness - The ability of famous composers to consciously perceive their environment and synthesize their experiences with meaningful musical expressions is a noteworthy human talent. The phenomenon of consciousness is not as well-understood as some believe. One definition: Personal awareness of one’s surroundings. What is involved in personal awareness? Much research has been produced by behavioral scientists in their effort to address and explain how consciousness works in the human body. One famous cognitive scientist, David Chalmers, has coined the phrase “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” He may agree with cognitive scientist Alva Noe who wrote that conscious creativity and decision making is “traceable to the continual storm of electrical activity in the complex neural network called our brain.” This statement is interesting and factual but not adequately explanatory.    

Creativity - We are impelled to marvel at the creativity of gifted composers of music. Why are some composers able to produce a wealth of wondrous melodies and auditory effects and still follow the rules of musical composition? The creativity of musical prodigies is not well understood. Are prodigies born or raised? There is no satisfactory reductive explanation for the tiny segment of composers on the most creative corner of the musical bell-curve.

Sensory Perception - Concertgoers revel in enjoyment of work produced by the most talented composers or performers. We also recognize the ability of concertgoers to enjoy the wonderful auditory stimulation of the rich orchestral blend and the visual stimulation of string sections bowing in visual synchronization. Audition and vision are bodily senses understood and explained by scientists.

When we return from a music venue and compare notes with fellow concertgoers, we inquire how they “enjoyed the concert.” There are many dimensions of enjoyment—sound, sight, and science. We give thanks to the Creator for our ability to savor all three.  




Friday, March 22, 2019

Weather Is All About Heat

Many areas of the United States have been deluged with cold weather, snow, and ice during the winter of 2018-19. Many Midwest regions are experiencing serious flooding resulting from recent heavy rains and snow melt locally and to our north, not to mention ice jams on streams resulting from intense past stretches of cold weather. We highlighted the rare January 2019 stratospheric polar vortex as well as the more common tropospheric polar vortexes, ordinary “cold snaps” which have chilled our regions during northern latitude winters as long as we can remember. As astronomical spring dawns upon the Northern Hemisphere, residents look forward to an increased supply of heat. 

Planet Earth is located in a comfortable “habitable zone” with respect to its temperature. It is not so cold that all of the Earth’s water exists in solid form. Neither is it too hot for all of Earth’s water to evaporate into a gas. Earth’s life depends upon a great majority of its water remaining in liquid state. The temperature range where this is possible is an incredibly narrow 180º (32º to 212º) on the Fahrenheit temperature scale. 

A volume of 326 million cubic miles of liquid water is found in the oceans. In addition 7.25 million cubic miles of ice rests atop Antarctica and about 696,000 cubic miles of ice is found above Greenland. Arctic ice comprises only about 4150 cubic miles. Solid ice shares the stage with all-important life-giving liquid water.

What about Earth’s water in vapor form? Beneficial liquid water could not be distributed around the Earth to sustain our lives without the presence and action of water vapor in the atmosphere! Liquid water evaporates, later condensing back to liquid water in the form of cloud droplets and ultimately falling as rain. Earth residents are recipients of life-sustaining precipitation for their crops and a multitude of other needs. Dual processes of evaporation and condensation provide transfer of heat and transportation of water from place to place. Evaporation removes heat; condensation returns heat. The process repeats over and over.

One source creatively described Earth’s atmosphere as the “superhighway used to move water around the globe.” Heat energy is constantly moving from one location to another, helping to sustain our lives. In the process life-giving water vapor enters the atmosphere from streams, ponds, lakes, and oceans. Eventually the water vapor forms clouds and precipitation falls. In the paragraph above we described the water cycle, an often under-appreciated marvel of the world of nature. Water volume in the atmosphere has been estimated at 3100 cubic miles—only 0.001% of all water on Earth.

The Sun is the driver of weather as a supplier of radiant energy. About half of the radiant energy is infrared radiation. When infrared strikes the surface of our planet it is absorbed and the planet gains heat energy in the form of increased motion of molecules. The heat is then redistributed in our atmosphere and drives our weather systems: Earth is always “working” to equalize intensity of differing zones of heat. Earth’s atmospheric systems come and go, supplying our enormous variety of weather.

Earth is blessed by a life-giving atmosphere. If there were no atmosphere, there would be no weather. Other planets in our solar system as well as exoplanets in distant star systems may possess entirely different atmospheres or none at all. Planet Earth is unique in possessing hundreds of fine-tuned physical characteristics. Our planet’s millions of separate species inhabit a world distinctively created for their lavish existence. Earth’s abundant, unique physical characteristics and its plentiful, distinctive life comprise a virtually unmatched complement.

Most translations of Isaiah 45:18 propose the complementary relationship of the Earth’s physical system and its variety of life. We quote this verse from the New International Version: For this is what the Lord says—he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited—he says: I am the Lord, and there is no other.   




Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Seasonal Trivia

One of the well-known questions in meteorology is “What is the cause of seasons?” Many related secondary questions occur. Are any facts about the motions of Planet Earth, its speed in orbit, its path through space, and the precise location it occupies at any given time, truly trivial? These questions connect with the cause of seasons. 

Before one proceeds very far with formal education, teachers introduce scientific lessons on astronomy and weather. With respect to the cause of seasons, weather and astronomy are integrally related. Simple concepts are discussed first, such as the basic facts of our solar system—our Earth as a sphere and its motions of rotation and revolution. These facts and motions are not perceptible to observers on Earth. But our lives depend primarily on perception of real motion—motions that actually occur. In astronomy students must become aware of the difference between real and apparent motion—not always an easy distinction. They must learn that most perceived motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars are not real. Rather, they are apparent, caused by the real motion of Earth’s rotation on its axis and the real revolution of Earth in orbit around the Sun.

How do educators deal with the challenge? They use examples of the distinction between real and apparent in real life: One of the best examples is a video of how occupants on a train interpret motion of passengers waiting on the platform to board. When people outside the train change positions, is their motion real? or is it apparent? If outside passengers actually move, their motion is real. If the platform passengers do not actually change positions when the train starts to move imperceptibly, their motion is only apparent. An added challenge arises if both train passengers and platform occupants actually move. 

Similar problems of distinguishing real from apparent motion occur in determining seasonal beginnings and endings of astronomical spring, summer, winter, and autumn. (Readers may review the precise relationship of “points, times, speeds, motions, and paths in space” related to Planet Earth as discussed in our previous 3/6/19 post.) Why is astronomical summer 94 days long while astronomical winter is only 89 days long? This curious fact relates to the speed of revolution of Earth in its orbit. Since our planet possesses an elliptical orbit, there is a position where the Earth travels slightly slower. This is called aphelion, the point of maximum distance. There is also perihelion, the point of minimum distance, when Earth travels faster by 3.34%. At aphelion, the point of maximum distance, Earth travels somewhat slower.

At aphelion the Sun’s gravity is slightly weaker so the Earth does not “fall” as quickly. Earth’s orbital speed is slightly diminished. When Earth approaches the Sun a little closer at perihelion, the planet “falls” more quickly. Its orbital speed increases slightly. The difference in speed in units of miles/sec is 18.21 mi/sec vs 18.82 mi/sec. Earth hurtles along in its orbit, on average, at 67,000 mph. These statistics fascinate most students of astronomy and weather trivia.

Our home planet is actually somewhat closer to the sun in winter, 91 million miles compared with 94.5 million miles. This seems counterintuitive. Perihelion occurs in early January and aphelion in early July. The effects of Earth’s 23.4º axis tilt are far more significant in terms of the onset of summer and winter environments. Likewise, astronomical summer’s 94 days compared with astronomical winter’s 89 days is essentially insignificant because few residents are counting the days.

When one first learns that we live on a spherical planet, that fact is difficult to discover from a personal physical point of view. We may be overcome with wonder. “How do we know?” some may inquire. Similar questions may be generated as they discover most motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars are not real, but apparent. Skilled teachers should use these occasions to teach young scholars modern methods of science discovery.

Most planets in our Solar System and the thousands of extrasolar planets discovered so far have axis tilts. Earth’s axis tilt makes life for 7.5 billion residents possible. As of March 1, 2019, 3999 confirmed exoplanets in 2987 planetary systems have been discovered in our Milky Way Galaxy. A Wikipedia entry states there are 200 billion stars in our galaxy of which 11 billion may possess habitable planets. This figure is incredibly optimistic. Of 3999 confirmed planets not one has come close to Earth conditions which support complex, wondrous life of millions of different species. There are hundreds of unique, fine-tuned, life-supporting parameters on Earth. Absence of any of these conditions would preclude the possibility of life. 

Intuitively, we believe in Intelligent Design. We believe the thousands of conditions on Planet Earth are indicators of Divine Design, even if some of the factual knowledge may seem trivial. Human intuition points to a deeper truth:





Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Meteorolgical or Astronomical Spring?

“Happy Spring!” Our household thermometer recorded an overnight low temperature of -5ºF on March 3. The median temperature on that day was thirty degrees below normal. “Take heart,” we tell our friends. “In several days we will enjoy two weeks of normal temperatures, according to the long range forecast.”  We do not cite these figures to become a source for weather statistics in the upper Midwest. Rather, our desire is to improve general weather literacy. We are now in meteorological spring, but we may experience surprising vagaries of the season no matter which season we claim to inhabit!

As a prelude to our discussion of spring and other seasons we recommend you review the link from our post of 10/27/17:

Just when we thought we understood pertinent facts about the spring season, we discover scientists have defined two spring seasons: meteorological spring and astronomical spring. Calendar-wise, there is some overlap between the two. Meteorological spring runs from March 1 to May 31. Those three months are characterized by generally rising, pleasant temperatures on average. By calling our three Gregorian calendar months—March, April, and May—meteorological (weather-related) spring, we may be certain which time frames we compare from one year to another. There is no guarantee that temperatures will always rise from one day to the next, or that we will never receive a bitter atypical cold spell or warm spell. We deal with average conditions as meteorological spring progresses.

Our above link to “Earth Without Seasons” stressed the effect of Earth’s seasons on Earth’s living things, including the occurrence of unpredictable weather. Beyond those there are many other more astronomical effects of Earth’s axial tilt, Earth’s elliptical orbit, and the 41,000 year wobble in Earth’s axis of rotation. Below we discuss why the astronomical seasons commence approximately March 21 (spring), June 21 (summer), September 21 (autumn), and December 21 (winter). As an example, why does the first day of astronomical spring occur at precisely 5:58 PM EST on March 20 in 2019? Meteorological spring (the “getting warmer” season) correlates with dates on the man-made 16th century Gregorian calendar.

Astronomical spring is related to precise points, times, speeds, motions, and paths in space as Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the Sun. These are all mathematically determined. Specific times of occurrence of events correlate with dates on the Gregorian calendar. The first day of meteorological spring is about three weeks prior to the vernal (spring) equinox—the first day of astronomical spring.

What is the vernal equinox? If you live in the northern hemisphere you have noticed that on December 21 the sun does not rise very far above Earth’s horizon at noon. By March 21 its noon position has gradually risen about halfway to its maximum, and by June 21 it has risen to its highest point. The Sun follows a path through the sky called the ecliptic. It does not really move, but it appears to move because we are moving around the Sun viewing it from constantly changing positions. The Sun, traveling along the ecliptic, traces a complete 360º path through the sky in one year. On about March 21 each year the apparent path of the sun crosses an imaginary circle called the celestial equator, made by extending the Earth’s equator infinitely out into celestial space. It intersects the imaginary celestial sphere at an infinite distance. On this date the Sun is exactly halfway to its highest point in the sky (or on the celestial sphere). The result is day and night are of equal length on that day. Before or after that date, day length is shorter or longer than night. This occasion is called the spring equinox (equinox = day and night of equal length). The term also refers to a date on the calendar or a point in space.           

On June 21 when the sun reaches its highest northern point on the ecliptic, we enjoy longest days and shortest nights. We have reached the date of the summer solstice (solstice = sun stands ‘still’).  After this date the Sun gradually begins to descend toward the celestial equator. This marks the end of astronomical spring, and the beginning of astronomical summer. Likewise, on about September 21 astronomical summer ends; astronomical autumn begins. We then observe the autumnal equinox. On about December 21, astronomical autumn ends; astronomical winter begins: we have reached the winter solstice. Our planet’s well-known axis tilt is responsible.

The meteorological grouping of seasons in three month blocks conveniently highlights environmental effects of our weather cycles. The astronomical season groupings of three month blocks of time beginning, respectively, on about the 21st of March, June, September, and December are, instead, based entirely upon celestial points, times, speeds, motions, and paths in space.   

Our universe is coherent and orderly. Meteorological and astronomical seasons both amply illustrate coherence and cyclical orderliness. Both sciences, meteorology and astronomy, manifest the glory of the Creator and His loving physical provisions for our temporal existence.


Monday, February 25, 2019

Biomes and Ecosystems

After the late January North American intrusion of the stratospheric polar vortex, we continue to hear many references to the polar vortex each time a significant winter event occurs. The term is now increasingly used, often incorrectly, by mid-latitude residents as winter’s wrath approaches and retreats.

People who inhabit areas north of 35º latitude are counseled to “think snow” or at the very least, prepare for cold conditions when shortened days of winter approach. During that season, plants and animals of their regions undergo changes in appearance and behavior. Bioscientists have described those cold weather plants and animals in detail, along with the seasonal adaptations they undergo. 

Biomes are large geographical areas with sizable ecological communities of plants and animals. Smaller areas exist within biomes. They are termed ecosystems—a group of species living in a given area interacting with one another and their environment. Temperature and climate are important factors in determining the character of ecosystems. When the stratospheric polar vortex struck North America in January 2019, we were reminded of biomes and ecosystems affected by cold temperature conditions—yes, even extremely cold temperature conditions. The Creator must have experienced joy when he observed the marvelous variety of weather conditions and multitudes of diverse living things He had created at the conclusion of His creative activity. In Genesis 1 God exults in His many works of creation after His work was completed: “And God saw that it was good.” The Book of Job, Chapters 35-41, offers a superb account of meteorological and biological wonders of the created world.

Genesis speaks of events in the Garden of Eden. It must have been a unique place insulated from hardships outside the garden. As we read the brief Genesis account of creation, many questions recur concerning its precise location, size, and environmental conditions not only within the garden but also thousands of miles and several continents away. We offer our opinion that our planet was filled with a wonderful multiplicity of life with millions of different animal and plant species and diverse worldwide biomes ranging from warm to cold, from wet to dry, and from lush plant life to sparse. We imagine that life outside the limited area of Eden would have pleased scientists with opportunities to observe rich biomes.  

In the cold North American winter of 2018-2019 we were reminded of conditions to our north in one of the six major planetary biomes. This is the tundra. Various sources list additional biome types, regions and sub-biomes. Most people are familiar with the tundra biome. Generally it is a cold region with a few simple plants. The land has a short growing season and its soils are frozen for much of the year.

We conclude with a shout-out to the United States Postal Service for producing a series of twelve self adhesive stamp sheets from 1999 to 2010, each highlighting life in a different ecosystem. Each sheet is an 8”X10” drawing of a specific ecological area including the artist’s rendition of 24 plants and animals. The only artistic interruption consists of (for example) USA37 printed at ten locations on the perforated sheet. Sheet five depicts the Brooks Range, Alaska “Arctic Tundra” with drawings of willow ptarmigan, grizzly bear, arctic grayling, dwarf birch, and map lichen, among others. Sheet 12 highlights animals and plants of the Alpine Tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park such as bighorn sheep, golden eagle, elk, alpine forget-me-not, and magdalena alpine butterfly. Such products make meaningful gifts for young children.

We delight in the environmental adaptability of individual species. These beautiful specimens possess an abundance of unique function and design. We need not travel the world to observe the unique behavior of animals and the appeal of plant life. These occur in our own neighborhoods. They strengthen our belief in God and our appreciation of the love He provides for humanity. Following is a link expressing our wonder for animal behavior in our local neighborhood:       



Saturday, February 16, 2019

Vortex Redux

As the frenzy concerning the January stratospheric polar vortex abates, we could not resist treating the subject in at least one more post. The polar vortex has become a catch word and buzz phrase. One feels more meteorologically literate when this term rolls off the tongue during conversation. We do not intend to disparage the importance of an event having such a great negative impact on so many residents. In our area, the vortex was embedded in an unprecedented sequence of school cancellations (10) and late openings or early closings (7) since January 14. Only two of those cancelled days were directly related to the polar vortex. The remaining days were linked to an unusual stretch of dangerous icy and snowy conditions causing havoc with local educational continuity and athletic team schedules.

In an ironic twist, many climate change proponents claim that global warming phenomena are related to, and may contribute to climate disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, blizzards, and even the recent stratospheric polar vortex cold outbreak. Tropospheric polar vortexes are common and coincide with almost all winter weather in heavily populated mid-latitudes of Planet Earth. In our previous 2-7-19 post we distinguished between rare stratospheric and common tropospheric vortexes:

Today’s societal frenzy over climate change connects with the recent embrace of the “Green New Deal” promoted by many politicians with future presidential ambitions. On the assumption that CO2 emissions from burning of fossil fuels causes destructive climate warming, proponents of the “Green New Deal” would prohibit fossil fuels by 2030. This would result in phasing out of airplane travel, not to mention a substantial revision of our national economy and lifestyle. Consumption of fossil fuels would be “net zero.” China currently emits more CO2 than the US and the European Union combined but would be immune from the US Green New Deal if enacted. CO2 emissions have generally leveled off in the industrialized world. This includes China. In the US and the European Union, CO2 emissions have actually decreased since 2007. 

Returning to the lively discussion of how climate change relates to the stratospheric polar vortex which chilled us with near record low temperatures in much of the Midwest, we cite a PBS News Hour program from 1/30/19. A climate scientist from Woods Hole Research Center, Dr. Jennifer Francis, was questioned on her view of the relationship between the late January polar vortex and climate change. The News Hour scheduled Dr. Francis only one day after the worst cold snap in years. The questioner, Amna Nawaz, seemed intent on evoking a climate change connection to the polar vortex event.

Climate scientists on both sides of the anthropocentric climate warming question agree that climate is changing. The questions remain—How much? How fast? What are the causes? And will the results be beneficial or harmful? Many scientists and politicians of today are predicting future disaster on many fronts. The questions are not close to being settled.

On the News Hour program, Dr. Francis made the point that Arctic warming has occurred significantly faster than warming at middle latitudes. Could this be the result of melting of polar ice in the Arctic? Scientists agree that sea ice in the Arctic has declined about 40% since 1970. Warmer liquid oceans could eventually warm the air over higher latitude regions and disrupt the polar vortex, causing it to break apart and send pockets of intense cold air to lower latitudes. Francis also states that water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased 5 or 6% since 1900 causing warming and more erratic behavior of the jet stream. Her newest hypothesis, however, is related to reduced sea ice in Arctic regions.

Dr. Francis concluded her presentation with a comment about the gradual climate change that we are experiencing: “…We know why: It’s all because of human activities increasing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that trap a lot more heat down by the surface.” We suggest that partly should replace all in Dr. Francis’ statement.   

Another noted climate scientist is Dr. Kevin Trenberth from National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). He agrees that the climate is undergoing significant warming and has impressive graphics to prove his point. Trenberth disagrees with Francis on the cause of the polar vortex and its connection with reduced sea ice. One of the worst stratospheric polar vortex events in 1985 did not correlate with an open ocean. Francis countered that other factors such as more water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere also could have an effect on the onset of polar vortexes. Trenberth posits that changes in ocean temperature such as those brought about by the El Nino event are as important as CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

Our short post cannot begin to deal with the complex causes and effects of climate change. Some causes and effects are natural; some are man-made. Our God has created a wonderful planet and desires that humanity would exercise wise care for it. Earth is a wonderful, robust but intricate system. We offer thanks to the Creator who entrusts it to humanity’s care.                       

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Vanishing Vortex

Our post title is meant to be humorous and provocative. There are two types of polar vortexes: tropospheric and stratospheric. Both vortexes consist of air circulating west to east, but differ in their size. Earth’s troposphere is the zone of Earth’s atmosphere where virtually all weather occurs. It hugs the Earth’s surface, ascending to various heights—highest at the equator (12 mi) but not as high at the poles (4 mi). Earth’s stratosphere rests atop the troposphere. Its temperature begins to rise as altitude increases. On occasion, various phenomena contribute to SSW (sudden stratospheric warming) at high latitudes around the poles. As a result the stratospheric polar vortex weakens, sending intensely cold air masses southward. The weaker the stratospheric polar vortex, the more likely we will receive a heavy dose of uncommon and intense cold. Truly intense stratospheric polar vortexes strike the US rarely, perhaps every few years.

The polar vortex may also refer to the circumpolar tropospheric vortex. This is a much larger, constant pattern of circulation generally outlined by the jet stream in middle latitudes. Undulations in the jet stream direct air masses to different areas and are frequently the source of diverse weather systems ranging from fair to adverse. A 2017 essay by Darryn Waugh, Adam Sobel, and Lorenzo Polvani in the American Meteorogical Society journal states, “…cold air outbreaks are fundamentally tropospheric events.” With reference to the mounting popularity of the term polar vortex, the authors continue, “…the term has become rapidly ingrained into the vocabulary of popular weather journalism and appears to be more common in the science literature of extreme weather.”    

Our recent polar vortex event “vanished” quickly. The historic stratospheric polar vortex outbreak in late January 2019 is now a distant memory. Not only were cold records set or nearly set, but the subsequent sudden warm-up following the event was highly unusual. Many areas rapidly warmed up from -25ºF or -30ºF to +45ºF or +50ºF in only one or two days. From recent official Accuweather records in Dubuque IA, we report daily highs/lows from Monday 1/28/19 through Monday 2/4/19: 14/1; 1/-21; -16/-28; -4/-31; 11/-8; 40/11; 42/37; and 43/14—a swing of 74 degrees! As we study the planet’s weather events, such a phenomenon is unusual, but not unheard of. Hardly any weather phenomenon is unique.

After the intensely cold winter of 2013/14, we submitted posts using the term polar vortex only once. During that year our midwestern region had 43 daily below zero readings, a truly protracted polar vortex. It was then that the term polar vortex became popular—not because the phenomenon had never occurred before, but because media consumers hunger for explanations replete with nomenclature. Al Roker has been a familiar television weather reporter in the New York City area since 1983. In response to skeptics who proposed that weather terms such as the polar vortex were created to explain phenomena such as the ever popular current fixation on climate change, Roker once trotted out a meteorology textbook from 1959 with an accurate description of the phenomenon which, no doubt, has been a characteristic of our planet for thousands or even millions of years.

In past posts we have referred to fascinating characteristics of our “dynamic” Earth. Weather events, sometimes even extreme weather events, are ultimately life sustaining, contrary to popular belief. We must consider these extremes in the context of totality. We explain: The polar vortex is actually a constant feature of our planet, not only a feature of northern or southern hemisphere winters. On rare occasions the symmetric polar vortex supplies Earth dwellers with harsh outcomes. We may question, “May good result from a vicious cold snap?” This year’s polar vortex was ushered in with uncommonly severe blasts of “polar” air. In less intense winter conditions in any season, meteorologists would call such cold air intrusions “cold fronts.”

Weather has been variously described as a chaotic and dynamic system—the day to day state of the atmosphere. Climate is a more stable and predictable average of weather when measured over time. Our discussion has highlighted the wondrous complexity and variety of our weather and climate. Many of these issues are frequently the subject of discontent and sometimes scorn if our comfort is threatened. We recall many discussions about weather where friends complained about uncomfortably cold, hot, humid, windy, rainy, or dry conditions . We have enjoyed powerful references to the power of cold in the words of Elihu (Job 37:9-10) and God Himself (Job 38:29-30). Both passages speak of ice. Elihu says it “ made from the breath of God.” When the Lord speaks, He inquires “…from whose womb comes the ice?” and reminds Job that He has given birth to the “frost of heaven.” We hold to our previous positions in many posts that Earth is “a place to thrive” for Earth’s over seven billion residents.

We dedicate this post to Joseph P. Virkler, my paternal uncle. He was the “last man standing” of my 21 paternal and maternal uncles and aunts. Over many years Uncle Joe and I shared memories of heat waves, cold waves, blizzards, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and droughts. He loved to recount stories of weather events he experienced during his 92 years of life in Central New York. Of many stories he loved to relate, several stand out. When people complained about the intense heat in the summer, he replied, ‘It’s supposed to be hot in summer.” Another favorite was his love of thunderstorms. One of the most memorable questions he ever posed was, “Who authored the laws of nature?” It was evident that he viewed the chaos of unusual meteorological events in the context of the total picture of weather and climate authored by and under the ultimate control and sustenance of God, the Creator.