About Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming works at the intersection of art and science. She is an environmental communicator and visual artist.

Why Earth Day Matters

Every day is Earth Day, as the saying goes. But, today marks the official celebration.

The first Earth Day – spearheaded by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin – was held on April 22, 1970.  An estimated 20 million people attended rallies across the US to protest against rampant industrial pollution and the deterioration of the nation’s natural environment. Raising public awareness and shifting the political tide, these events helped put environmental issues on the national agenda. They led to the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

This year, with the rise of “alternative facts” and the Trump Administration’s rollback of US climate change policies, the date is more significant than ever.  In the spirit of the original event, concerned citizens across the US are gathering for marches in support of science and fact-based environmental policies.

Blue Marble 2012. Credit: NASA

 

March 2017: Earth’s Second Warmest on Record

Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month with March 2017 marking the second warmest March ever recorded on this planet. Only March 2016 was warmer.

According to the state of the climate report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for the month – over both land and sea surfaces – was 56.79°F. That is a whopping 1.89°F above the 20th-century average. March was also the 387th consecutive month with a global temperature above its long-term norm. That means the last time any month posted a below average reading was December 1984.

While heat dominated most of the planet in March, some places were particularly warm, including the United States, Europe, and Russia. For the contiguous US, despite the cool conditions in the northeast, it was the 9th warmest March on NOAA’s books.

These soaring temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. In fact, March 2017 marked the first time a monthly temperature departure from average surpassed 1.8°F (1.0°C) in the absence of an El Niño event.

Year to date, the first quarter of 2017 was the second warmest such period of any year on record. Global temperature records date back to 1880.

Credit: NOAA

April Marches

April is famous for its showers, but this year it will be known for marches. After the rise of “alternative facts” and the Trump Administration’s rollback of US climate change policies, many concerned citizens will be making their voices heard at rallies this month in support of science and climate action.

The March for Science will be held on Earth Day, April 22, and the Peoples Climate March will take place the following week on April 29. The main events for both will be in Washington, DC, but satellite marches will be held in many cities across the US and around the world.

For more information, look at the links below:

Credit: March for Science and Peoples Climate Movement

Easter 2017: Second Warmest on Record for NYC

The calendar said Easter, but it felt more like the Fourth of July in New York City on Sunday. The temperature in Central Park soared to a sweltering 87°F, which is a staggering 25°F above average.

According to the NWS, this was the second hottest Easter on record for the Big Apple. The warmest was April 18, 1976, when the temperature hit 96°F. Unlike Christmas, Easter falls on a slightly different date every year. It is the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs after the spring equinox.

While the heat was not ideal for the holiday’s famous chocolate eggs, the city’s parks were filled with people enjoying the warm weather. However, if you are not quite ready for summer, fear not. More spring–like conditions are expected to return this week.

Credit: NWS

Talking Climate Change with Artist Carolyn Monastra

Talking Climate Change is an interview series focused on the variety of people addressing the issue of our changing climate. Participants run the gamut of professions, from scientists to artists, and together we discuss the subject from a multitude of perspectives. For this installment, I spoke with Carolyn Monastra, a New York City-based artist.

Melissa Fleming: As an artist, how did you get involved with climate change? What motivated you?

Carolyn Monastra: I’ve been a practicing artist as well as an activist and environmentalist for a couple decades, but I never married the three until recently. In 2009, I was on a residency in Iceland and was both mesmerized and haunted by the beauty of the melting glaciers and calving icebergs that I was photographing. I was already aware of the basic concerns about climate change but in 2010, when I heard activist Bill McKibben interviewed on the radio, a light bulb switched on and I realized I needed to use my photography to document this critical issue.

MF: You have a project called The Witness Tree. Tell us about that.

CM: Without knowing it, those photos in Iceland were really the beginning of The Witness Tree. I knew it would be ambitious, but I felt compelled to tell the global story of climate change. In the United States, many do not experience the effects firsthand nor recognize the way that others, especially those in more developing nations, are being impacted. I wanted to use this project to connect the climate dots around the world.

At first, I had planned to document just the impacts on the land but then realized that the lives of people (and wildlife too) are inextricably linked to the land. I used a 2011-12 sabbatical from teaching (at Nassau Community College) to travel continuously for nine months around the world targeting people and places affected by climate change. Most of the work was made during that year, but I have continued to photograph in the Northeast and whenever I travel to someplace new. On the project website, I have over 200 pictures broken up into nine portfolios or “chapters” with each one focusing on a different issue or aspect of climate change.

MF: As you said, images from this project were taken all over the world. How did you choose your locations and the stories you tell? What role did science play?

CM: I spent a full year doing research by reading books by McKibben, James Hansen, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others in the field. I also created a “Google alert” for climate change articles and attended presentations and meetings. Based on my findings, I kept a running list of climate issues and the places I hoped to visit. At some point, I put up a world map in my kitchen and started marking it with color-coded post-its. I knew I wanted to photograph on every continent and that traveling to Antarctica would be the most difficult and expensive to visit. But since it is warming faster at the poles than anywhere else, I felt committed to including it in the project. When I bought my around-the-world ticket, I had to create an itinerary; so some of the locations came down to where the airlines I was flying could take me. For example, I had wanted to photograph the effects of sea level rise in Bangladesh, but it was going to take some extra flights to get me there. Instead, I ended up photographing in a small village in Thailand that is also being inundated by rising seas.

The Viedma Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields of Argentina has retreated more than 1 km since the 1930’s. At its current rate of retreat, scientists predict it could disappear within sixty years. ©Carolyn Monastra

It is important to me to understand the science of climate change as best as I can as a layperson. I hate when people (especially politicians) say, “Well, I’m not a scientist,” as an excuse for not acknowledging that climate change is real or in admitting our role in it. I am not a scientist either, but I know how to read and ask questions and make informed decisions about topics that concern me. I like Senator Al Franken’s retort to this cop-out: “I’m not a doctor, but I have to make health care decisions.” When extreme storms and floods start decimating people’s homes, it won’t matter whether or not we are scientists.

MF: What did you learn from this project? Did anything surprise you?

CM: I have learned a lot about the measurable impacts and the not-so-visible impacts of climate change, but what surprised me most, or rather what I was pleased to discover, is that one really can rely on the kindness of strangers. I mostly traveled alone, and nearly everywhere I went, when people learned what I was doing, they had a personal anecdote to tell, or a suggestion of a place to visit, or someone to meet. I could not have done this project without the help of so many “strangers” – many of whom I now consider friends. That said, one thing I suspected that sadly has been confirmed, is that we do indeed have more climate denial in the U.S. than anywhere else, especially now with the current administration. I had a recent experience where a NASA scientist canceled our intended interview after being told by his “current employer” that he was not allowed to discuss his work. I fear that without an active public discourse and climate-change curbing policies, the U.S. carbon footprint will balloon and lead to disastrous results down the road.

MF: How is talking about climate change via art different than talking about it via data and statistics?

CM: In 2012, I was selected by the Climate Reality Project to become one of their “Climate Leaders” and was trained to give slideshows based on Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth model. I used their “deck” of slides (a blend of news photos and charts and graphs) for my first few presentations. As time went on, I transitioned to using my Witness Tree photos and kept a few of the more eye-opening statistical slides. I found my audiences, especially students, responded more to the personal nature of my artistic images and stories.

Stairs and burial vault displaced by Hurricane Isaac floodwaters, Braithwaite, Louisiana, USA, 2012. ©Carolyn Monastra

A musician friend once told me that he thought my pictures were too beautiful to tell the story of something so horrible. I asked him if he would purposely create a piece of atonal music that might appeal to a small audience but push away the general public. I don’t want to gloss over the negative impacts of climate change, but I believe it is possible to use beauty to address the fact that we might lose so much of what is beautiful and necessary in our world.

MF: Tell us more about how you turn your audience from passive viewers into active participants.

CM: After a year or so of giving Witness Tree slideshow presentations where the audience sat in chairs and I stood behind a podium, I wanted to create an audience-engagement activity. I came up with the idea of making a live “Witness Tree” for the Human Impacts Institute’s Creative Climate Awards in 2014. From a tree in a city park, I hung several dozen small Witness Tree prints. On the back of each was a map showing the location where the image was taken, a detailed caption, and some tips on how to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Attendees made postcards for politicians addressing environmental concerns and then were invited to take home one of my photos in exchange for hanging their postcard on the tree. At the end of the event, I mailed the postcards off to the politicians. I believe events like this give people a sense of agency and encourage them to use their own creative skills to address issues that matter to them.

MF: Thank you, Carolyn!  For more images and information about Carolyn’s work, go to thewitnesstree.org. To see a video of her interactive Witness Tree event, go to https://vimeo.com/119784247.

Portrait of Carolyn Monastra in a region of eastern Inner Mongolia that used to be pastureland but has turned into a desert due to the effects of deforestation, overgrazing and climate change. Photo Credit: Jiehao Su.

NYC Hits 80°F for the First Time this Year

It felt more like June than April in New York City on Tuesday. Building on the prior day’s spring heat, the temperature in Central Park soared to 80°F, marking the city’s first 80-degree day of the year.

Topping out at 20°F above average, the day was unseasonably warm. However, it was not a record breaker. That honor belongs to April 11, 1955, when the mercury soared to 84°F. On average, the city’s first 80-degree day does not show up until April 26.

Wearing short sleeves and enjoying lunch alfresco, many New Yorkers took full advantage of this summer preview. Some even celebrated the clash of the seasons by ice-skating in shorts at the rink in Rockefeller Center (photo below). More seasonable conditions are expected to return later this week.

Ice-skaters wore shorts at the rink in Rockefeller Center as the temperature soared to summer-like levels. Credit: Melissa Fleming

Spring has Sprung in NYC

After a cold March and a chilly start to April, spring has finally sprung in New York City!

With a high temperature of 74°F in Central Park, Monday was the warmest day the city has seen since last October. Our normal high for this time of year is 59°F.

The primary driver of these balmy conditions is a strong Bermuda High off the mid-Atlantic coast that is funneling warm southern air into the region.

These warm temperatures, which are more common in late May than early April, are expected to last for a few days. Enjoy!

Trees and plants are starting to bloom in NYC. Credit: Melissa Fleming

March 2017 was More of a Lion Than a Lamb in NYC

There is an old saying that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. It refers to the transition from winter to spring that takes place during the month and the change in weather that usually follows. However, in New York City this year that tradition went out the window as March turned out to be colder than February.

This type of temperature flip-flop, according to NWS records, has only happened five other times in NYC history. The last time was 1984.

This March, twenty-one out of thirty-one days posted below average temperatures. Five of those days had highs that did not get above freezing. In the end, the city’s mean temperature for the month was 39.2°F, which is 3.3°F below normal.

In terms of precipitation, the city was unusually wet in March. In all, we received 5.25 inches of rain, which is 0.89 inches above average. Snowfall was also abundant, with 9.7 inches measured in Central Park. Of that total, 7.6 inches fell during a nor’easter in the middle of the month. March, on average, usually only brings the city 3.9 inches of snow.

This plentiful precipitation, according to the latest report from the US Drought Monitor (3/30), has erased the abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions that have plagued the city for months.

March was colder than February in NYC this year. Credit: The Weather Gamut

President Trump’s Executive Order Rolls Back US Climate Policies

With the stroke of a pen at a signing ceremony inside EPA headquarters on Tuesday, President Trump issued an executive order that rolls back his predecessor’s efforts to protect the environment and combat climate change.

The main target of this sweeping directive is the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Developed under the umbrella of the Clean Air Act by an executive order from President Obama, this set of EPA regulations aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. More specifically, its goal was to cut emissions 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.  It also sought to replace the coal-fired plants with a mix of natural gas, solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. Now, with this new Trump order in place, the EPA will have to begin the process of re-writing and withdrawing these policies.

Other key points of this omnibus executive order include: nullifying rules on methane emissions from oil and gas operations, lifting the moratorium on coal leases on federal lands, and scrapping the requirement for government agencies to consider the climate impact of policy decisions – the so-called “social cost of carbon”.

Just before signing the document, President Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, said, “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal.” According to Federal Reserve Economic Data, however, coal mining jobs have been declining for decades largely because of automation and the availability of cheap natural gas.  Moreover, the US Department of Energy reports that the number of coal jobs in the US is less than 75,000 while there are nearly 650,000 people employed in renewable energy.

Given the variety of items included in this presidential order, its full implementation is expected to play out over two very different time scales. Policies about coal leases and the social cost of carbon, for example, are expected to go into effect straight away. However, it will likely take years for the EPA to fully revise or withdraw all the Obama-era climate regulations. There will also certainly be a plethora of legal challenges from environmental groups and states, which will slow the process. New York and California have already declared their intentions to fight any effort to lift greenhouse gas regulations.

On the international front, the order did not say whether the US will remain a formal party to the Paris Agreement – the global pact signed in 2015 to combat climate change.  But in gutting the CPP, the Trump Administration has sent a clear message that it has no intention of following through on the greenhouse gas reduction pledges made by the US as part of the non-binding accord.

Executive orders give presidents the opportunity to promote their policy priorities in lieu of Congressional action. However, as seen on Tuesday, they are fragile things that can be easily undone by the next occupant of the Oval Office. In the end, this type of waffling back and forth on environmental policy generates a number of problems, both domestically and internationally. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that makes planning for long-term projects, like energy infrastructure and global agreements, extremely difficult.

Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant near Farmington, NM. Credit: DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory

Twelve New Cloud Types Added to International Cloud Atlas

Look up! There are some “new” clouds in the sky. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) – the UN’s weather agency – announced twelve new additions to its prestigious International Cloud Atlas on Thursday.

First published in 1896, the atlas is considered the most authoritative and comprehensive reference volume for identifying clouds. This is the first time it has been updated in thirty years.

Clouds, like flora and fauna, have an official classification system. There are ten different genera, which are defined by altitude and appearance. These are then subdivided into species based on a cloud’s shape and structure. Within these, there are varieties that describe the arrangement and transparency of different clouds. Whittling things down even further, there are also supplementary features/accessory clouds that merge with or attach to the main cloud body. In total, there are about one hundred combinations.

This new version of the Cloud Atlas recognizes one new species called volutus, but it is more commonly known as a roll cloud. This tube-shaped cloud appears to roll around a horizontal axis and is typically associated with the leading edge of a thunderstorm. But, on occasion, advancing cold fronts can also trigger their formation.

Six new supplementary/accessory features were also added. For avid sky-watchers, however, they are already widely known by their common names. These include:

Furthermore, five new “special clouds” were also part of the update. These form because of unique localized factors, including human activity such as exhaust from jet engines.

Of all these new additions, the asperitas (formerly known as undulatus asperatus) has garnered the most attention. These low-level clouds are caused by weather fronts that create rolling waves in the atmosphere and resemble the underside of a turbulent sea. It was first photographed in 2006 by a cloud-watcher in Iowa. Then in 2008, after several other sightings around the world, the Cloud Appreciation Society, an international group of cloud enthusiasts, began to lobby the WMO to acknowledge it as a new cloud type.

Available in digitized form for the first time, the WMO hopes this new edition of the International Cloud Atlas will help to increase public understanding of the critical role clouds play in the atmosphere. “If we want to forecast weather we have to understand clouds. If we want to model the climate system, we have to understand clouds. And if we want to predict the availability of water resources, we have to understand clouds”, says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

The WMO cloud classification system can be traced back to Luke Howard, the so-called father of meteorology. In 1803, he published “The Essay on the Modifications of Clouds” which organized its then nebulous subject using a Latin nomenclature.

Asperitas Cloud. Credit: WMO