Geography from space: Nile at night, a river of light

September 25, 2015

Geography teachers love the Nile Delta because it so well epitomizes what a river delta is — clear demonstration of the delta form, in real photos.

From the International Space Station, the model gets ramped up a bit:

A stunning pic taken by @StationCDRKelly while on @Space_Station shows the Nile River at night http://go.nasa.gov/1iAE3EV

Twitter caption: A stunning pic taken by @StationCDRKelly while on @Space_Station shows the Nile River at night http://go.nasa.gov/1iAE3EV

The Nile becomes a river of light, showing the advance of electrified human settlement along the banks, and providing stark contrast to the unlighted desert on either side of the river.

What other cities, landmarks, or geographical features can you identify in the photo?


Warning signs in Texas

September 7, 2014

On several Texas rivers one may rent a large tire inner tube, to float down the river on a good day.

Safety instructions sometimes are minimal, but effective.

Safety rules at a river float rental company, location unknown. Photo via Cathy Ordeman

Safety rules at a river float rental company, location unknown. Photo via Cathy Ordemann

Tip of the old scrub brush to Cathy Ordemann.


Grizzly on the Snake, in the Tetons

January 15, 2014

A Grizzly Bear crossing the Snake River at sunrise in the Grand Teton National Park.   Photo: Donald Higgs (www.sharetheexperience.org)

A Grizzly Bear crossing the Snake River at sunrise in the Grand Teton National Park. Photo: Donald Higgs (www.sharetheexperience.org)

From the U.S. Department of Interior’s Great American Outdoors Tumblr:

A Grizzly Bear crossing the Snake River at sunrise in the Grand Teton National Park.
Photo: Donald Higgs (www.sharetheexperience.org)

I was born on the Snake River, farther south and west, in Burley, Idaho.  It’s a grand river, not so much in the water it moves as the way it moves through the landscape and becomes a part of grander parts of the American west.  Kathryn and I honeymooned in Yellowstone, and stayed in Grand Teton on the way out.

There is nothing grander on Earth than a sunrise in the Tetons.  Do you think a grizzly appreciates that?

Yeah, gotta get back there.


Electricity in the air, times 2

September 1, 2013

Spectacular photo of Glen Canyon Dam, in the early morning, with a thunderstorm to the north.  This photo was taken close to the spot where Norman Rockwell painted the dam about 40 years ago.

 Electricity is in the air at Glen Canyon! Although the Glen Canyon Dam produces hydroelectric power around the clock, an early morning thunderstorm really cranked up the voltage earlier this month. Use caution when planning your upcoming outdoor activities as intense thunderstorms are common this time of year. (Photo Credit: David Bailey)

Electricity is in the air at Glen Canyon! Although the Glen Canyon Dam produces hydroelectric power around the clock, an early morning thunderstorm really cranked up the voltage earlier this month. Use caution when planning your upcoming outdoor activities as intense thunderstorms are common this time of year. (Bureau of Reclamation/Interior Facebook entry; photo Credit: David Bailey)

More:

Norman Rockwell's tribute to the Glen Canyon Dam.  Bureau of Reclamation image

Norman Rockwell’s tribute to the Glen Canyon Dam. Bureau of Reclamation image


Geographic jokes, on the Colorado and Green Rivers?

July 29, 2013

Can the scientist appreciate the beauty of creation as much as the non-scientist religious person?

Can you get the joke in this photo, without a smattering of knowledge of geography, and languages?  Or am I looking at it wrong?

Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, in Canyonlands National Park.  Photo by Jim Collins

Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, in Canyonlands National Park. Photo by Jim Collins, posted on Facebook by Canyonlands National Park

It’s a joke on a planetary scale, if not a cosmic one.

(Hints:  This is a photo looking from the north, I think; “Colorado” means “red” in Spanish.)

Update: Okay, Mr. Higginbotham convinced me.  We’re looking from the west, and that’s the Colorado coming from the top of the picture, and the Green coming from the bottom left; then the conjoined streams flow away, to the bottom right.  So, in the photo, the Colorado River is, appropriately, red, while the Green River is, fittingly, green

Not a majestic joke by Mother Nature, but a poetic way to remind us of the names of these rivers.

Poetry that might make us smile, too.

(It’s rare that these rivers run such dramatically different colors, especially with the Colorado that red, that far north.)

Google Maps aerial photo of the Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers; match the geography with the other photo, and note the labels on this one.  Tip of the old scrub brush to Mr. Higginbotham.

Google Maps aerial photo of the Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers; match the geography with the other photo, and note the labels on this one. Rotate this picture 90 degrees to the left, it matches up better.   Tip of the old scrub brush to Mr. J. A. Higginbotham.

More:


Can a person of science really appreciate beauty? (Feynman!)

June 28, 2013

Don Prothero posted this on his Facebook feed, from Unearthed Comics:

Scientists' view of vacations, Unearthed Comics, Sarah Zimmerman, copyright 2013

Unearthed Comics, Sarah Zimmerman, copyright 2013

It’s an old question:  Can one understand the science behind the beauty, and still be in awe of the beauty?

Can one understand evolution in biology, or geology, or physics, and still be in awe of the universe?

About a year ago I wrote on this issueMark Twain said no; Richard Feynman says yes, and the scientist appreciates the beauty more.

What do you think?

From my earlier post:

Mark Twain wrote about how too much knowledge can spoil beauty for a beholder. In Life on the Mississippi, Twain described how the natural beauty of the river changed for him once he started serious study to be a river pilot. That wonderful sunset revealed the river was high, hiding objects of danger. That beautiful little ripple told him a snag waited underwater to pierce his boat.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

. . . The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade? (From Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 9; from the University of Virginia Library, Electronic Text Center)

Oh, it’s great literature. But I’ve always been troubled by the anti-science nature of Twain’s complaint, that if you know something really well, you’ll lose respect for its beauty. What better way to discourage a young person from learning science, from learning about the stars, the trees, the rivers and mountains?

It was not so for me. The more I learned about western trees, and grasses and wildflowers, the better I grew to love the dry, hot western desert mountains. The more I yearned to learn about the geology that carved spectacular canyons and isolated pinyon pines from ponderosa with a sea of sagebrush — and the more I learned, the more I appreciated how delicately balanced the whole thing was.

Then I found Feynman. He put into a few words what I felt. He described a continuing discussion he had with artists, about beauty and the relationship of science to the appreciation of it. He recorded an interview for the BBC in which he reiterated much of the story, with the added advantage of his wry delivery.

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. […] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts. (From What Do You Care What Other People Think? page 28)

What do you think? Can scientists appreciate beauty as well as artists?  How about the rest of us?

Does learning improve our appreciation of beauty as we increase our understanding of nature, or is learning a barrier to awe?


A study in geography: The Red River of Texas – film from Texas Parks & Wildlife

December 26, 2011

Seven minutes on the Red River of the southern U.S., the fickle border of Texas and Oklahoma, the river of story and legend.  Good for a map study, good for the fun of it — how much do you really know about the Red River?

George Washington did not cross the Red River; George Washington may not have known the river even existed.  His loss.


Hoaxsters frustrated: Alert called off at Nebraska nuclear power plant

July 15, 2011

Sometimes time and events just catch up to the hoaxsters.

In Nebraska, on Wednesday July 14, the Cooper nuclear generating station of the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) ended it’s “notification of unusual event” as floodwaters of the Missouri River retreated from the site.

Walkways for flood at Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, 2011

Publicity photo from Omaha Public Power District

According to the Associate Press report, the alert for the nuclear power plant at Fort Calhoun remains in effect.  Fort Calhoun is upriver from Cooper, and lower in elevation in relation to the Missouri River.  Fort Calhoun also was offline and in cold shutdown when the alert was posted, because it had been in a refueling operation.  Fort Calhoun is operated by Omaha Public Power district (OPPD).

NRC Chairman tours Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station

Publicity photo from OPPD

No damage was done to the reactor at either site.  Operations continued at Cooper.

Rumors of a serious incident aroused conspiracy nuts when a hoax report out of Pakistan claimed the Russian nuclear agency had said the Fort Calhoun plant was in meltdown.

NRC chair tours Fort Calhoun NGS in Nebraska, 2011

No meltdown. Photo from OPPD

How with the hoaxsters spin it now?

More, resources:

Earlier at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:


Troops who fought in two wars now protect public against Missouri River flood and nuclear accident

July 10, 2011

Hoax claims died down a bit across the blogosphere, but the Missouri River still floods, and the two Nebraska nuclear power plants on the Missouri still face threats from the flood.

Comes news via the Omaha World-Herald that members of Nebraska’s and Iowa’s Air National Guard — many of them veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan — patrol the levees, helping protect against floods.  Among points of special concern are the nuclear power plants at Fort Calhoun and Cooper.

The military helicopter’s black shadow dances on an engorged Missouri River as the aircraft slowly loops the flood-encircled Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station — the same left-leaning turns the pilot navigated two days prior.

Warrant Officer Boe Searight, 32, with the Nebraska Air National Guard wants the infrared camera mounted under the chopper to record similar flood scenes for levee experts on the ground to compare.

He and his colleague Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eric Schriner also are looking for new signs of trouble for the flooded plant.

“Keep daily eyes on it and see if anything changes,” says Schriner, 31.

Far below, on mosquito-infested riverbanks, two-person crews with the Nebraska National Guard and Iowa National Guard patrol the Omaha and Council Bluffs levees in mud-caked boots.

Members of the Guard are the front-line levee watchers in an operation that clearly has high stakes: Levees protect about 40,000 people from homelessness in the neighboring river cities — as well as the region’s key airport.

The levee watchers are out there right now — three shifts a day, all week, searching for gopher holes, chasing away sightseers who could fall from the levees, and checking for signs of water seepage.

More than 130 men and women with the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard work each day for flood duty, along with 120 from the Iowa Army and Air National Guard.

The idea is to spot trouble early. Levees don’t always give notice before they rupture, but more often than not they do.

If trouble is spotted, steps can be taken to shore up or boost a weakened levee.

Good to know.  Still no nuclear incident along the lines of the hoax report from the Pakistani outlet alleged to be based on a report from a Russian agency — which is also good news — but no cause for abatement of overall concern.

Sometimes safety preparations work.  Kudos to the Air National Guards, to the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, and to the companies who own  the power plants.  May their work continue to pay off in no nuclear incidents.

Idaho Samizdat noted earlier that the bizarre conspiracy theories haven’t borne out as accurate or true in the least:

The flooding situation in Nebraska has been the subject of bizarre conspiracy theories originating in Russia and Pakistan alleging that a meltdown has occurred at Ft. Calhoun and that the government is covering it up.

One U.S. web site, Business Insider, ran with the story as legitimate and set off a huge round of copy cat reports on the Internet.

Reports of a U.S. news blackout are also part of the conspiracy theory even though Nebraska papers such as the Omaha World-Herald and the New York Times have run major stories on measures by the two reactor sites to prevent the flood waters from reaching important infrastructure such as switch yards


Hoaxed Nebraska nuclear plant crisis update

June 24, 2011

Help me out, Dear Reader:  Here is the English language site of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (FAEE), the press site.  Can you find any statement at this site relating to the power plants in Nebraska along the flooding Missouri River?

Fires in Japan after tsunami -- not a nuclear power station

What some reports appear to paint as the Nebraska nuclear generating stations (However, please note: In this photo, no nuclear power plants appear)

Cooper nuclear generation station in 1993 floods

What you really see: Cooper Nuclear Generating Station in Nebraska -- still there (from a 1993 photo)

I have found no mention of any U.S. incident.   This suggests the Pakistani news report of a Russian agency report of disaster is hoax, too.

Claims of a crisis in Nebraska are hoaxes,  I think.  The Russian agency from which the report is claimed to have come, does not show such a report.

This is more evidence that the whole flap is a hoax.

True to form, several birther and other conspiracy paranoiac sites claim that these plants in Nebraska are gone, in flames, or leaking water that nearly glows.

Can’t Sarah Palin point her bus to Nebraska and let her press entourage get the real story?


Chronic drought complicated by chronic denialism

May 26, 2011

Which is worse:  To be in the depths of a drought, or to deny drought where it exists?

I ask the question because, as one cannot tear one’s eyes away from a train wreck about to occur, I watch Steve Goddard’s blog.  Occasionally Steve or one of his fellow travelers says something so contrary to reality or fact that I can’t resist pointing it out.

In some discussion over there, Goddard suggested that because there is above-average snowpack around Salt Lake City and in Northern Utah, Lake Powell’s decade-long struggle with extreme drought is over.  Therefore, to Goddard, global warming does not exist.

(No, I’m not really exaggerating.  Seriously.  Go look.  No one there seems to have ever had a course in logic, nor in English composition and essay writing.  If Al Gore got svelte, one suspects half the commenters there would never be able to speak again.)

It is true that this year, contrary to the past decade, snowpack is high along the Wasatch Front and in the Uinta Mountains of Utah, and in Wyoming and Colorado areas that drain into the Green and Colorado Rivers.  Consequently, forecasters say that Lake Powell may gain a few feet of depth this year.  Powell is down about 50 feet, however, and even a record snowpack won’t erase the effects of drought on the lake.  (Yeah, I know:  The Wasatch doesn’t drain into the Colorado system — it drains to the Great Salt Lake, as indeed do many of the streams that have great snowpack in Utah — so a lot of the record snowpack won’t get within 400 miles of Lake Powell.  That’s geography, and it would be one more area that commenters would embarrass themselves in.  Don’t ask the pig to sing if you aren’t going to spend the time to teach it; if you need the aphorism on teaching pigs to sing, look it up yourself.)

Since Lake Powell won’t lose a lot of elevation this year, the Goddardites (Goddardians?  Goddards?  Goddardoons?) pronounce the U.S. free of drought.

Right.

Check it out for yourself, Dear Reader.  Here’s an animation from the National Drought Center, showing drought measurements in the contiguous 48 states plus Alaska and Hawaii, over the past 12 weeks:

Drought in the U.S., 12 weeks ending May 17, 2011, National Drought Mitigation Center, U of Nebraska-Lincoln

Drought in the U.S., 12 weeks ending May 17, 2011, National Drought Mitigation Center, U of Nebraska-Lincoln - click on map for a larger version at the Drought Monitor site.

Here’s the drought outlook map from the Climate Prediction Center at NOAA:

U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook Map, released May 19, 2011, NOAA and the Climate Prediction Center

U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook Map, released May 19, 2011, NOAA and the Climate Prediction Center - click image for a larger version at NOAA's site.

It would be wonderful were these droughts to break soon.  But that is very unlikely.

So, why would anyone deny it?

Then, just to indicate the bait-and-switch logic these guys use, Goddard came back with a claim that the 1956 drought in Texas was worse, as if that means the current drought doesn’t exist.  Fore reasons apparent only to those whose heads get pinched by tinfoil hats, he also notes the CO2 levels for 1956.  I think I know what point he’s trying to make, but someone should tell him that apples are not oranges, and comparing apples and oranges to pomegranates doesn’t increase the supply of tennis balls.

Let’s just stick to the facts.  The experts who must operate the dams and lakes and get water to Mexico on schedule say the drought along the Colorado persists.  Who are we to gainsay them?

Resources:  

GEOSat photos of Lake Powell and drought, 2000 to 2004 - Dr. Paul R. Baumann, SUNY - Oneonta College

GEOSat photos of Lake Powell and drought, 2000 to 2004 - Dr. Paul R. Baumann, SUNY - Oneonta College


Lake Powell drought ended? Don’t trust the warming denialists’ predictions

April 20, 2011

Every once in a while a factoid crosses the desk and/or mind of an otherwise badly-informed person who denies global warming is a problem, and without bothering to check the significance of the factoid, the denialist world ramps up The Crazy Rant.

And so, Steve Goddard (who should need no introduction) seized upon a chart that shows a momentary uptick in water in drought-ravaged Lake Powell.  Ignoring more than 50 years of history of the river flows, Goddard pronounced the case for global warming dead.

Former AGW poster child Lake Powell water levels have been rising rapidly over the last few years.

Goddard’s claim is a grand example of the triumph of ignorance over experience, science, data, history and the law, in discussions of climate change.

Did Goddard read his own chart?  It shows a decline in lake level from 2010.

Lake Powell levels, charted by Steve Goddard?

Goddard’s own chart shows a decline in Lake Powell’s March 20 level, from 2010; did he look at the chart? Even Goddard’s source says, “Lake Powell is 89.99 feet below Full Pool (Elevation 3,700).”

“Full pool” level is 3,700 feet elevation (the height of the surface of Lake Powell above sea level).  Goddard’s chart shows the lake hasn’t been at that level since 2000 (and it was declining for some time prior to that).  Goddard’s chart shows four years of rise compared to seven years of decline.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation isn’t as optimistic as the warming deniers, noting that drought conditions continue on the Colorado Plateau.

 Upper Colorado River Basin Hydrology

In the Upper Colorado River Basin during water year 2010, the overall precipitation accumulated through September 30, 2010 was approximately 90% of average based on the 30 year average for the period from 1971 through 2000.  For Water Year 2011 thus far, the estimated monthly precipitation within the Upper Colorado River Basin (above Lake Powell) as a percentage of average has been: (October – 135%, November – 95%, December – 225%, January – 50%, February – 100%, March – 90%)

The Climate Prediction Center outlook (dated March 17, 2010) for temperature over the next 3 months indicates that temperatures in the Upper Colorado River Basin are expected to be above average while precipitation over the next 3 months is projected to be near average in the northern reaches of the basin while below average in the southern reaches of the basin.

Upper Colorado River Basin Drought

The Upper Colorado River Basin continues to experience a protracted multi-year drought.  Since 1999, inflow to Lake Powell has been below average in every year except water years 2005 and 2008.  In the summer of 1999, Lake Powell was close to full with reservoir storage at 23.5 million acre-feet, or 97 percent of capacity.  During the next 5 years (2000 through 2004) unregulated inflow to Lake Powell was well below average.  This resulted in Lake Powell storage decreasing during this period to 8.0 million acre-feet (33 percent of capacity) which occurred on April 8, 2005.  During 2005, 2008 and 2009, drought conditions eased somewhat with near or above average inflow conditions and net gains in storage to Lake Powell.  2011 will be another above average inflow year so drought conditions are easing somewhat in the Colorado River Basin. As of April 18, 2011 the storage in Lake Powell was approximately 12.73 million acre-feet (52.3 % of capacity) which is below desired levels.  The overall reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin as of April 18, 2011 is approximately 31.40 million acre-feet (52.8 % of capacity).
Updated: April 19, 2011

Rick Clayton

Goddard isn’t the first denier to stumble down this path — but can’t they learn from the stumblings of others?  Remember Australia’s “Jo Nova,” who used a photograph of drought-stricken Glen Canyon Dam and environs to claim that warming was not posing problems?  Remember Anthony Watts claiming Lake Powell as a “good proxy” for water in the entire area, and seizing on a momentary uptick?  (Oh, yeah — Watts based his glee on a Goddard note — even repeating Goddard’s error that Lake Powell’s low levels were due to increased use of water in Los Angeles . . .)

Oy.  Do they ever learn?

More, Resources:

The sources from my earlier post on Lake Powell still edify those who bother to read them:

More current sources:


Annals of Global Warming: Black soot and glaciers in Tibet

January 5, 2010

Another in a series on the history of global warming; this comes from the Earth Observatory at NASA (visit that site — the image is more stunning, larger):

tibet_geos5_2009269

Black Soot and the Survival of Tibetan Glaciers

Posted December 15, 2009
Black Soot and the Survival of Tibetan Glaciers

Color bar for Black Soot and the Survival of Tibetan Glaciers
download large image (677 KB, JPEG) acquired September 26, 2009
download large animation image (9 MB, M4V) acquired August 1, 2009 – November 9, 2009

On the Tibetan Plateau, temperatures are rising and glaciers are melting faster than climate scientists would expect based on global warming alone. A recent study of ice cores from five Tibetan glaciers by NASA and Chinese scientists confirmed the likely culprit: rapid increases in black soot concentrations since the 1990s, mostly from air pollution sources over Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent. Soot-darkened snow and glaciers absorb sunlight, which hastens melting, adding to the impact of global warming.

NASA climate scientists combine satellite and ground-based observations of soot and other particles in the air with weather and air chemistry models to study how the atmosphere moves pollution from one place to another. This image is from a computer simulation of the spread of black soot (“black carbon” to climate scientists) over the Tibetan Plateau from August through November 2009. It shows black carbon aerosol optical thickness on September 26, 2009. (Aerosol optical thickness is scale that describes how much pollution was in the air based on how much of the incoming sunlight the particles absorbed.) Places where the air was thick with soot are white, while lower concentrations are transparent purple.

The highest concentrations of black soot are in the right-hand side of the image, over the densely populated coastal plain of China. But high concentrations occur over India, as well, and the black soot spreads across the southern arc of the Tibetan Plateau, which is defined by the towering peaks of the Himalaya Mountains. (Note: Topography has been exaggerated to highlight features that influence air movement). The animation shows how the black carbon pollution from India often circulates at high concentrations for several days against the base of the Himalaya, periodically “sloshing” over the rim of the mountains and spilling northward over the plateau, before being carried away over the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea.

Writing about the implications of the study for the Goddard Institute for Space Studies Website, NASA climate scientist and study co-author James Hansen said, “[C]ontinued, ‘business-as-usual’ emissions of greenhouse gases and black soot will result in the loss of most Himalayan glaciers this century, with devastating effects on fresh water supplies in dry seasons. The black soot arises especially from diesel engines, coal use without effective scrubbers, and biomass burning, including cook stoves. Reduction of black soot via cleaner energies would have other benefits for human health and agricultural productivity. However, survival of the glaciers also requires halting global warming, which depends upon stabilizing and reducing greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide.”

NASA image by Gregory Shirah, Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio, based on model simulations from the Goddard Earth Observing System Model, Version 5 (GEOS-5). Caption by Rebecca Lindsey.


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