The unbearable turbulence of climate change


As anyone who reserves their best pair of jeggings for intercontinental air travel will know, the combination of your good jeggings, red wine, and turbulence can be an absolute nightmare. It turns out, adding climate change into the mix will make for a literal (by which I mean figurative) perfect storm.

We all know that climate change is heating up our atmosphere and oceans, causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt, raising sea levels, and increasing risks due to hailstorms, wildfires, hurricanes, and Al Gore lectures. Some of us even know that it's forcing certain trees to move westward. But none of that mattered, because none of it affected me.

What affects me, and the majority of the planet's population, on a daily basis? You guessed it: climate change's impact on airplane turbulence! A recent study in Advances of Atmospheric Science claims that turbulence is only going to get worse as climate change continues to change climates. Using multiple climate models, the authors have determined that in all categories of "wintertime clear-air turbulence," rated from light to severe, bumpiness will increase dramatically (on the order of 60-150%) by the middle of this century (~2050 CE).

You may be wondering, what exactly is "turbulence"? Well, scientifically speaking, it's a menace. But, it's also when two very different parcels of air collide and make everything around them go haywire. Kind of like when Trump meets up with any other world leader...

The meteoric rise of the mesosphere

Image from  NASA

Image from NASA

For years, even before there were people, not a single person on Earth knew what a mesosphere was. Years later, maybe even today, it's hard to find a levitating toddler that isn't proselytizing the intrinsic virtues of mesospheric science. (In case you've been living on top of a rock for the past all years of your life: the mesosphere is the middle part of the atmosphere.)

A paper was recently published in Radio Science, which describes how Norwegian radar stations observed meteors breaking up in the Earth's middle atmosphere. Radar signals were used to track meteor broken-up-bits moving around in the mesosphere, which in turn allowed clever mesospherists to calculate mesospheric wind speeds and other wind characteristics. Mesospheric winds are not easy to measure, so this paper is kinda a big deal. Bigly.

You may be asking yourself, "Why should I care about wind speeds 90 km (1 Gillion miles) above the surface?" Good question. Unless you yourself are a mesospherist, it would be insane for you to care about mesospheric wind. Come to think of it, why are you still reading this? Do you just think that scientific progress is neat? The bee's knees? (is it the "bee's knees" or the "bees' knees"? How many bees are there?) The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the mesospheric wind.

(NOTE: this is a sentence that was cut from this post: When meteors break up they move on with their life and find some other meteors to date. How do you date a meteor? Radioisotopes. This is terrible.)

Bright nights in shining airglow

Have you ever had one of those nights: you're stranded in the hinterlands, miles away from any source of artificial light, there's no moon, no aurora, yet suddenly you realize that it's bright enough to read a map and you seem to have no problem navigating the corn maze?

Surprisingly, you're not alone. Throughout history, there have been accounts of nights, without moonlight and without aurora and without electricity and without fire, where people noticed, "hey, I can see stuff!" These kinds of nights have cleverly been termed, bright nights.

The authors of an article accepted in Geophysical Research Letters think that satellite observations can explain this bright night phenomenon. Turns out it's all due to waves of airglow.

Airglow: the same atoms and molecules that glow in the aurora during magnetic storms, are essentially always glowing at low levels, just too faint for us mere mortals to see from the ground. Photo from  NASA .

Airglow: the same atoms and molecules that glow in the aurora during magnetic storms, are essentially always glowing at low levels, just too faint for us mere mortals to see from the ground. Photo from NASA.

The study suggests that, occasionally, multiple waves of airglow will align at a particular location in the upper atmosphere, leading to one extremely bright patch of airglow (perhaps right above your secret hinterland corn maze!). This area of intense airglow could be just barely perceptible by humans going about their night on the surface, who would say something like "huh. I think this night is brighter than usual. I'm going to call it a bright night." And then a Black Eyed Pea would call it a bright, bright night. And then we'd all laugh and laugh and not bump into each other because we can see everything because of airglow.

Regulation, what is it good for?



What happens when you allow industry to police itself? Rarely does it lead to industry arresting itself, or even pulling itself over just to let itself off with a condescending warning.

Sulfur dioxide, also known as SO2, is a toxic pollutant released by volcanoes, by burning coal, and other industrial activities. Volcanoes we can excuse for not accurately reporting their pollution emissions due to their lack of fingers to count on, but industry probably doesn't have the same excuse.

EXAMPLE: One of the top 20 largest sources of SO2 on the planet (excluding volcanoes) is a Russian copper smelter in Karabash. But the only reason why we know it is among the world's greatest polluters is because satellites can independently measure emissions from space. According to dubious Russian sources, the Karabash smelter installed output scrubbers sometime around 2001, which immediately reduced emissions of SO2. However, independent satellite data shows that no such reduction of emissions ever actually happened. In fact, between 2003 and 2014, above the Karabash smelter, concentrations of SO2 more than tripled

Great. But, what's the ultimate message here? Clearly, this is just one story: one Russian copper smelter gaming the system. It's extremely tempting to say, "See! Industry can't be trusted!" We've offered no other examples of this kind of behaviour. So, it comes down to whether you think corporations feel some kind of imperative to honestly report their pollution output. Our opinion: independent regulation could possibly, maybe, be a good thing. Hashtag: SAVE THE EPA!

Russian data from doi:10.1134/S1028334X1103024X, satellite data from doi:10.5194/acp-16-11497-2016

2016 was living in a bubble


2016 was a notoriously bad year. It seemed that in order to cope, everyone just hunkered down and decided to live in their own personal bubble. It also seemed as if a toxic haze had enveloped the Earth and just wouldn't go away. Well, according to a recently accepted article in Geophysical Research Letters, that is exactly what happened. A thick layer of hydrogen cyanide in the stratosphere was hovering over all of our heads the whole year and still hasn't gone away (a la Trump)!

To be fair, there's always a very little bit of hydrogen cyanide floating around up there. But in 2016, stratospheric hydrogen cyanide levels were on the order of 50-90% greater than normal.

How did it get there? Well, the 2015 fire season in Indonesia (yes, they have a "fire" season) peaked that year in September-October. The seasonal fires are typically set on purpose to clear peat land (which apparently releases oodles of hydrogen cyanide when burnt) in order to use the land for industrial agriculture; and in 2015 the fires were more difficult to extinguish due to drought conditions.

So, that's really it! A month or two of fire in an equatorial island nation, caused an extreme global increase in hydrogen cyanide in the stratosphere for well over a year. According to the lead author, as of April 2017, hydrogen cyanide levels have still not returned to normal.

Still think that humans have no effect on the atmosphere? Then you're likely living in a bubble. And not the good kind of bubble, like the bubble that's made out of pie that you're "forced" to eat your way out of. I want to live in a pie bubble.