Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Recurring Spring Cycles

Consider the many natural cycles embedded in our life experience. We have described many types of cycles in past posts. Optionally, we recommend readers review our 2012 post entitled “The Ubiquity of Cycles” as an introduction to our discussion of several well-known recurring cycle phenomena associated with the spring season in North America:

As we write, approximately 75% of the astronomical spring has passed. The spring season is always positioned between the same seasons—always following winter, always preceding summer. Many secondary cycles are embedded within the primary cycle of annual seasons. Earth’s rotation causes cycles of light followed by dark, warm/cold temperature cycles related to day and night, or even less obvious daily cycle of elevated relative humidity in early morning. Virtually all weather statistics relate to cycles of one sort or another.

Dozens of natural astronomical and meteorological cycles are associated with our planet’s 23.4º axis tilt away from the perpendicular to its orbital plane. Some cycles, such as the day/night cycle, relate to Earth’s rotation. These two interlocking causes provide wonderful observable cycle phenomena by which humans are sustained, enriched, and even entertained. 

A famous astronomical cycle is illustrated by the presence of the huge prehistoric Stonehenge Monument in England. Huge boulders were positioned purposefully several thousand years BC. According to accepted theory, analysts have concluded that sightings from the center of the original Stonehenge structure align with momentary positions of the sun as aligned with the “heel stone,” a location several hundred feet outside the monument on the specific date of the summer solstice. The calendar date of the summer solstice marks the farthest northward advance of the sun owing to Earth’s axial tilt. This phenomenon is but one example of hundreds of repeating cycles governing the function of our physical world. Cycles of many types are examples of distinctive characteristics and unique attributes of our predictable and orderly planet.

In the home of your blog author, for many years we have observed what we have humorously dubbed “Homehenge” on the same few dates in April each spring. For several days sunlight streams through our elevated kitchen dormer window into the eyes of people seated in our “sun” room. New York City has its “Manhattanhenge” a cyclical, predictable phenomenon visible on certain east-west streets. Afternoon sunlight shines through narrow profiles of city buildings for a day or two on 42nd Street and other thoroughfares on May 28 each year.

Switching from astronomy to the animal world, we were delighted to spot our first Monarch butterfly on May  22. The well-known migration cycle of Monarch butterflies reveals itself each spring from south to north. Monarch reproduction consists of several months of four-stage metamorphosis (sub-cycles within the main migration cycle). The monarchs return to a specific Mexican forest in autumn. These working cycles, repeated annually, are spectacular examples of the living intelligence gifted to Monarchs by the Creator of all things, non-living and living. 

Migration cycles govern the springtime appearance and autumn return of dozens of beautiful bird species in local neighborhoods. Locally, we are blessed with a few species whose members occasionally remain for the winter, including crows, owls, cardinals, various woodpeckers, and sometimes a few robins and bluebirds. Titmice, nuthatches, and chickadees may be able to survive based on their access to preferred foods even in winter. Some of the most fascinating birds are noted for their remarkable migration behaviors, covering thousands of miles during their round trips to and from their wintering venues. Included are confirmed migrants—swallows, orioles, wrens, hummingbirds, scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds, and one of our favorites, the indigo bunting. Migration behavior seems inherently programmed. The most interesting migrations enable some species to return to a specific site year after year. We have affirmed this visually and auditorially with at least one species—the indigo bunting.

Nature’s spring cycles inspire reverent wonder. In our last paragraph we focused on the class aves. Birds of spring amply treat humanity to their distinctive diversity of size, color, adaptability, hunting proficiency, reproductive strategy, nest-building, flying skills, uniqueness of song, and territoriality. Many of these are cyclical traits.

Many natural cycles relate to the recycling of elements or compounds. For example, our planet possesses the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the oxygen cycle, and the carbon cycle. Other cycles involve regular, repeating events such as seasons and recurring annual positions of the sun at various positions on the ecliptic. The vernal equinox and the summer solstice illustrate this meaning. Without the many cycles governing our environment, Earth would not be the wonderful, life-sustaining planet we inhabit.          


Friday, May 17, 2019

Wonders of Spring

Springtime is the season of renewal and a time to inspire exuberance, but each season has its unique appeal. In Genesis 8:22, the Lord states “For as long as Earth lasts, planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never stop” (The Message Translation). All four seasons are explicitly stated or implied in this passage. Planting is primarily a springtime experience, but winter and spring conditions often overlap. 

The spring season is not always predictably pleasant. When spring arrives in our season-enhanced mid-latitude location in far northwest Illinois, many residents tend to ruminate on how the conditions of the current spring compare with previous ones. With a nod to the limitations of personal active recall, I tracked down several posts from past years, along with a 36-year old volume published during our residence in New Jersey. The search revealed that some memorable past weather events become surprisingly blurred with the passage of time.

Many unusual or unique weather events lurk in the recesses of memory. Over many years, our dynamic weather system affects our environment in diverse ways. It is responsible for many memorable and not so memorable events. Recently my wife was assembling some old books in our storage room for possible discard. I spotted a volume entitled “The New Jersey Weather Book” (Rutgers University Press, 1983), authored by David M. Ludlum. The ink was barely dry in this volume when it described a memorable storm on April 7, 1982: “The Spring Blizzard of 1982.” On April 5 I was guiding a group of student hikers in Morristown National Historical Park. The day dawned clear and cool, but we informed the students that prescient weather forecasters were calling for an intense blizzard the next two days. Our six-year-old son was looking forward to a birthday party with his school classmates. Instead, he was blessed that a few nearby neighbor children were able to share his birthday cake after trudging through 13” of snow at 11ºF in a rare mid-winter style blizzard.

The spring season is supposed to be a pleasant, warming time of renewal. Often our meteorological spring could be described in those terms, but Earth’s weather is a dynamic phenomenon. In fact, spring is the most dynamic weather season of all. This means the season could be snowy, susceptible to flooding, windy, and tornado prone with wild temperature swings. The Upper Midwest, including our immediate neighborhood, has experienced these wild swings of weather. This spring, for example, has provided St. Paul, MN with 42 consecutive days of flood stage on the Mississippi River, exceeding the record of 33 days in 2001. Spring snow melt and hefty spring rains were responsible for this season’s tragic flooding. 

Speaking of wild temperature swings, April 1-18, 2018 provided us with the coldest temperatures on record for that time period, 5.1ºF below the previous record average. That chilly April brought our northwest IL region four relatively minor, but still highly unusual snowfalls. The same year a single Green Bay WI snowstorm on April 14 dropped 23.5 inches, their deepest snowfall in 130 years. In 2019 April 27, our immediate neighborhood received 8” of snow but it was nearly gone within 24 hours. Not to be outdone, Duluth MN received its heaviest May snow on record, 10.6 inches on May 8-9. The Northwest IL region had an average temperature of 64ºF from February 17-22 in 2017 demonstrating that winter and spring weather may overlap with wild temperature swings at mid-latitudes. Spring conditions in 2019 have been ten or more days late in large areas of the Central United States.

Lest our readers suffer undue pessimism about spring seasonal unpredictability we close with a chronicle of anticipated “normal” events of spring occurring every year, notwithstanding the occasional extraordinary departures from “average” conditions. We cite parts of our post from May 5, 2008:

Spring affects our local trees, now slowly springing to life and tinged with pastel green. Startling changes are associated with the onset of spring—visual changes in the plant world accompanying audible spring vocalizations in the animal world. In a deep winter February moment of despair we might imagine that the leafless, dry, gray tree branches swaying in sub-zero blasts of cold wind are dead. Fast-forward to early May, however, and signs of renewed life are everywhere. Our home is situated in a biome called the “temperate deciduous forest.” Most of the trees lost their leaves in autumn after their summer food-making tasks were complete. They sent carbon and nitrogen compounds in the form of proteins to storage cells in the tree roots and inner bark.

Come spring, when nights shorten, days lengthen, and temperatures rise, trees detect these gradual changes. It is time for the roots and inner bark to relinquish their store of nutrients for the leaf building process. Water and soil minerals make their upward journey, defying gravity in the process. After several weeks thousands of leaves have achieved full size, sporting their characteristic shapes and other identifiers. Leaf characteristics join branching patterns, bark textures, flowering and fruit production features, and size limits as traits which never vary from their genetic blueprint. Each tree knows exactly what to do and when to do it.

Descriptions of anatomy and behavior are exceedingly plentiful in the literature of plants and animals. At the same time we are surprised by the lack of explanation for the apparent ‘intelligence’ underlying their behavior. Plant scientists describe ‘what’ but are less able to explain ‘how.’ One article lamented, “Many mechanisms are still not understood.” How does an arrangement of molecules in a plant’s DNA govern the unique behavior of each species? That intelligence is surely more than the reductionist might claim if he explains multiple diverse plant behaviors as mere manifestations of “molecules in motion.”

Together with starling meteorological variety, springtime in temperate climate zones provides many examples of natural work/rest cycles. God instructed Moses to establish a work/rest sequence for the ancient Israelites in order to provide physical and spiritual benefits. Nature’s cycle mechanisms also reflect biblical exhortations to transition from idle inactivity to the bloom of active physical and spiritual renewal. The spring season produces an object lesson for Christ’s resurrection—the transition from death to life. God has given his children many models of spiritual reality from the world of nature. We must be alert for these lessons!   



Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Climate Change Benefits

Our society is currently besieged by discussions of the worrisome topic of climate change. Earth’s climate has been dynamically changeable over the entire history of the planet. We have heard the term ‘cycles of change’ frequently with respect to virtually all human or natural events. The characterization of ‘change’ is neither good nor bad. It is intrinsically present in every phase of humanity’s experience. With respect to ever-occurring changes in our climate we are challenged to respond analytically and pass judgement even-handedly. Since the term climate change has been frequently substituted for global warming in the past few years, hopefully we find ourselves on the cusp of a more balanced discussion.

For the past fifteen years there have been many movements among evangelical leaders concerning environmental issues. Evangelicals have not been unified in their responses to environmental issues. Beginning 2005, the National Association for Evangelicals (NAE) produced several networks and statements, including the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) and the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) described as “An Evangelical Call to Action.” Notwithstanding the noble intentions of that evangelical leadership, the response of other evangelical church members has not always been supportive or unified. 

NAE leaders published an additional endorsement on climate change in 2015 entitled “Caring for God’s Creation—a Call to Action.” The endorsement was in solidarity with many evangelical leaders around the world. Its most significant pronouncement was a statement we have heard echoed by many secular politicians in our day: “Probably the most serious and urgent challenge faced by the physical world now is the threat of climate change.” This loaded statement is the backbone of the case made by secular progressive environmental activists of our day. Some well-known politicians have enlarged upon these inflated warning statements even further: Two current candidates for president of the United States have pronounced apocalyptic warnings for human survival—12 years, and 10 years respectively.  

We support many expressions of Christian environmental responsibility set forth by evangelicals over the last few years. Our blog has expressed unease, however, with some popular models of current and future climate change. Dire warnings of catastrophic results triggered by small increases in world temperatures are open to question. We believe in prudent creation care—preventing pollution, shunning waste of natural resources, preserving natural habitats, protecting endangered species, maintaining sound ecological relationships, and exercising caution in developing new technologies such as genetic modification. Nonetheless, the astronomical cost of carbon “net-zero” solutions could result in economic catastrophe. Temperature threshold models and net-zero carbon emissions proposals are deeply intertwined.

The hot button climate change issue is an extremely passion-producing topic. To complicate matters, it has become intertwined with politics. What is politically correct? Political loyalty conflates with personal ideology—a sensitive matter. Even more delicate is the assignment of morality or religious righteousness to our climate change response. What is our Christian responsibility? Religious people wish to be on the correct side of morality. Perhaps most important is the pressure to be scientifically correct. Does anyone wish to be scientifically incorrect? Politics and religion are recognized as personal, volitional choices, but endorsing climate change may have the strongest appeal to those who wish to be on the side of science. Science is recognized by many citizens as a ‘sure thing.’ Some suppress the concept that personal philosophy may influence scientific conclusions.

We ask readers to judge for themselves the pronouncements of two experts on the topic of climate change. Professor Richard Tol of Sussex University is professor of environmental economics with a particular interest in climate change. He has posited that warmer temperatures may do more good than harm. The present impact of climate change is relatively small (only 1.0ºC since 1900). This small amount of climate change did indeed raise human and planetary welfare during the 20th century. He claims that future climate change (temperature rise) would be beneficial up to 2.2ºC from present levels. Such temperatures would not be reached until the end of this century, given that temperatures are projected to rise 0.2ºC per decade at the present rate of increase.

Benefits from projected increased temperatures would be fewer winter deaths, lower energy costs, better agricultural yields, probably fewer droughts and likely, greater biodiversity. It is well known that the trace gas CO2 is the raw material from which all of the world’s plants make carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Greenhouse operators sometimes pump CO2 into the air to raise growth rates. It has been shown that the slightly increased levels of CO2 have resulted in a noticeable 31% greening of Earth’s vegetated areas while only 3% of vegetated areas have become less green. Increased atmospheric CO2 is responsible. In the last 3000 years average Earth temperatures have varied within a range of 3ºC, including two natural cycles of cool temperatures and two cycles of warm temperatures. A USA Today article from 5/20/15 reported that cold conditions are 20 times more likely to cause fatalities than heat, worldwide.

Bjorn Lomberg, an economist conversant with climate issues, recently appeared on several television news interview shows. He states that, contrary to popular alarmism, people in our world are not dying from climate change. World deaths from weather related causes have dropped dramatically in the last 100 years. Deaths have been reduced 95% in the last century, notwithstanding that world temperatures have experienced a slow increase. Media focus on climate change should instead highlight medical problems such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, suicide, or drug abuse. People espouse their favorite climate change ‘causes,’ including mitigation of atmospheric carbon by substituting renewable energy for fossil fuels. The trillions of dollars proposed for mitigation has been shown to be of insignificant effect on the CO2 content of our atmosphere decades in the future.

If US politicians wish to help poor countries we would be well advised to turn away from the carbon free crusade with its unsustainable costs and turn instead to helping those nations increase their opportunities for trade, improve their medical practices, and expand technology opportunities. Lomberg cites improving technology as a way to enable people to do more, not less, in order to enrich their lives. Forcing a carbon-free existence on the world’s poor nations would reduce their current living standard even more. 

Climate change is one of the most polarizing topics of our age. The spectrum of positions on the topic has broadened considerably, especially in the last fifty years. We must be aware of the issues of climate change. If recurring changes in our climate are beneficial, we must accept them with gratitude to the Creator who cares deeply for humanity’s welfare. If some elements of climate change are truly harmful we should search for valid scientific solutions using the modern gifts of technology. In all cases we desire divine wisdom as our guide to action.