Love of Winter

Today is Valentine’s Day, a holiday when images of cupid and hearts abound. But for me, it is George Bellows’ Love of Winter that always comes to mind as we mark the mid-point of what is usually New York City’s snowiest month of the year.

A longtime personal favorite, this 1914 painting captures the spirit of those who embrace the season. Filled with the blurred movement of skaters on a frozen pond and accented with spots of bright color that pop against the snow, it conveys the joy of being out in nature on a cold winter day.

While Bellows is better known for depicting scenes of boxing matches and urban life, art historians say he enjoyed the challenge of painting the varied lighting conditions produced by a snow-covered landscape. In fact, he wrote a letter to a friend in January 1914 complaining about the lack of snow in NYC that winter. He said, “There has been none of my favorite snow. I must paint the snow at least once a year.” Then, about a month later, his wish for snow was granted and this picture was created.

Love of Winter is part of the Friends of American Art Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Love of Winter”, 1914 by George Bellows. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

Why Today is National Weatherperson’s Day

Today is National Weatherperson’s Day in the United States. While not an official federal holiday, it is a day to recognize the work of all individuals involved in the field of meteorology – not just prognosticating groundhogs.

According to the NWS, today’s designation honors the birthday of Dr. John Jeffries who was one of America’s first weather observers. Born in 1744, this Boston-based physician had a deep interest in weather and kept detailed records of daily conditions from 1774 to 1816. He also took the first known upper air observations from a hot air balloon in 1784.

Since the 18th century, the weather industry has grown by leaps and bounds. Utilizing radar, satellites, and computer models, meteorologists today provide forecasts and warnings to the public in an effort to protect lives and property. But in the end, weatherpersons, like Dr. Jeffries, are fascinated by weather and are always seeking to improve their understanding of its complex processes.

Dr. John Jeffries taking weather measurements from a hot air balloon. Source: Wonderful Balloon Ascents.

Climate Science is Not New

As someone who both writes and gives talks on climate change, I often meet people with doubts about the subject who ask: “Climate science is so new, how can we trust it?” The answer is simple. It is not new. In fact, the fundamentals of climate science have been understood for close to 200 years.

One of the first scientists to look into the planet’s energy balance was Joseph Fourier, a French physicist, in the 1820s. Given the Earth’s distance from the Sun, he was curious to know why its temperature was not cooler. Fourier felt that something other than incoming solar radiation was keeping the planet warm and hypothesized that the atmosphere was somehow acting like an insulating blanket. Working with the limited technology of the day, however, he was unable to make the detailed measurements needed to carry his idea further.

Decades later, in the 1860s, an Irish scientist named John Tyndall picked up Fourier’s theory. An alpine adventurer, he was interested in glaciers and the then controversial idea of ice ages. Wanting to know more about how they formed, he devised an experiment to see if the Earth’s atmosphere was acting like a thermostat. For this, he built a spectrophotometer – an instrument that measures the amount of heat that gases can absorb. His experiments showed that water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane were all very efficient at trapping heat. This essentially proved Fourier’s idea of a greenhouse effect.

In the 1890s, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist, followed up on Tyndall’s idea of an atmospheric thermostat and ran with it. Ruling out water vapor as too transitory, he focused on carbon dioxide, which tends to linger in the atmosphere for a long time. His calculations showed that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise the average global temperature by 5°C (9°F).

To understand if such a large-scale change in atmospheric CO2 was possible, he turned to Arvid Hogbom, a colleague studying the global carbon cycle. This is the natural geochemical process where volcanic eruptions and the chemical weathering of rocks release CO2, while plants and oceans absorb it. Hogbom confirmed that CO2 levels could change dramatically over long periods of time. However, he also noted that industrial processes were releasing a significant amount of CO2 relatively quickly. Using this information, Arrhenius calculated that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, could alter the composition of the atmosphere and increase global temperatures. In the 1890’s, however, fossil fuel use was only a fraction of what it is today and he believed it would take more than 1,000 years for the level of atmospheric CO2 to double.

Jumping ahead to the 1950s, Charles David Keeling, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, found a way to directly monitor levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. He created an instrument called a gas chromatograph and installed it on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. At an elevation of more than 11,000 feet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it is removed from both direct CO2 sources like factories and sinks such as forests that could skew the data. Still in operation today, the information recorded at this station is known as the Keeling Curve. It shows the steady increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere from 1958 to present.

Keeling’s measurements provided solid evidence that CO2 levels were rising and validated the theories of Tyndall and Arrhenius. More recently, scientists were able to extend his curve back in time by analyzing ancient air bubbles trapped in ice-cores from Greenland and Antarctica. This lengthy record shows that pre-industrial CO2 levels in the atmosphere were about 280 ppm. Today, they are over 400ppm – the highest they have been in more than 800,000 years.

Seeing this dramatic rise in CO2 and realizing the impact that a warming climate could have on society, the UN formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. They assess the peer-reviewed research of thousands of scientists from around the world and publish a synthesized view of the current science. The latest IPCC report (AR5 published in sections in 2013/2014) unconditionally states that human activities are the main drivers of modern climate change.

Therefore, while it is the nature of all science to evolve with time and research, it is safe to say that climate science is not a new subject. It is only relatively new to those in the political sphere.

Giants in the history of climate science.

Weather and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a long-standing holiday tradition in New York City.  For 90 years, it has marched rain or shine. Nevertheless, the weather has been a factor for the event several times over the years.

Famous for its giant character balloons, high winds are the main weather challenge for the parade. According to city guidelines, the multi-story balloons cannot fly if there are sustained winds in excess of 23 mph or gusts higher than 34 mph. These regulations were put in place following a 1997 incident where gusty winds sent the “Cat in the Hat” balloon careening into a light post, which caused debris to fall on spectators.

The only time the balloons were grounded for the entire parade was in 1971 when torrential rain swept across the city. In 1989, a snowstorm brought the Big Apple a white Thanksgiving with 4.7 inches of snow measured in Central Park. The parade marched on that year, but without the “Snoopy” and “Bugs Bunny” balloons as they were damaged by high winds earlier that morning.

This year, the wind is not expected to be a problem. Temperatures, however, are forecast to be a bit chilly – mostly in the mid-40s.  So, bundle up if you are planning to watch the parade in person.

Marching from West 77th Street to West 34th Street in Manhattan, the 90th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is scheduled to begin at 9 AM on Thursday morning.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Paddington Bear Balloon floats down 6th Ave in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Credit: Macy's

Paddington Bear Balloon floats down 6th Ave in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Credit: Macy’s

200th Anniversary of the ‘Year Without a Summer’

Two hundred years ago, the warm weather we typically associate with summer never materialized for large areas of the globe, including the eastern United States and Europe. As a result, 1816 has become known as the year without a summer.

This historic cold spell was caused by the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in April 1815 – the most powerful volcanic eruption ever recorded. While it devastated the immediate area and unleashed a deadly tsunami, it was the the massive amounts of sulfur dioxide spewed out by the volcano that had far-reaching impacts on the global climate.

After an eruption, ash and debris can cool a region for a few days by blocking out the sun. However, extremely powerful eruptions – like Tambora – can send gas clouds into the stratosphere – an altitude above where our daily weather takes place. The stability of this layer of the atmosphere means the sulfur dioxide can linger there for several months. Moving around the globe easily at this level, the sulfur dioxide spreads out, reacts with water vapor, and forms sulfate aerosols. These reflect incoming solar radiation and increase the reflectivity of clouds, cooling surface temperatures.

The average global temperature in 1816, according to the UCAR, dropped 3°C. That may sound like a small number, but it had dramatic impacts, especially during the summer months. In the US, heavy snow blanketed parts of New England in June. Frost was reported as far south as Virginia through July. Then in August, after a brief reprieve, severe frost returned to many parts of the northeast. These unseasonable conditions caused widespread crop failures, livestock losses, famine, and disease. Ultimately, it forced many people to migrate west.

Europe suffered similar conditions, but also had excessive rainfall. Crop failures and price inflation for basic goods from Ireland to Germany lead to food riots in many cities. The gloomy weather also famously inspired many British and European writers. Mary Shelly, for example wrote Frankenstein while on vacation at Lake Geneva in Switzerland that summer.

Luckily, this dramatic – albeit natural – climate change was temporary. The aerosols eventually settled out of the atmosphere and sunlight returned. While the process that produced this moment in weather history was essentially the opposite of the runaway green house effect happening today, it is a great example of how sensitive the climate is to changes in atmospheric composition. It also shows how seemingly small changes in global temperature can have huge impacts on our lives.

Weather Observations Date back to 1700s at Chatsworth House

Traveling in the Peak District of England recently, I had the opportunity to visit Chatsworth House – the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. (For a pop culture reference, check out the 2008 film “The Duchess”.) While I went mainly to see the historic home and beautiful gardens, I was pleasantly surprised to spot a meteorological instrument shelter and Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder on the lawn behind the palatial house.

Weather observations have been made on the estate since the 1700s. Even with updates to the instruments over the years, that makes it – as far as I know – one of the oldest, continuously operated personal weather stations around. Some of the highlights from its long history include:

  • Coldest temperature was -19°C (-2.2°F) on February 24, 1947
  • Wettest month was December 1914, with 23cm (9 inches) of rain
  • Driest year was 1780 with 49cm (19.3 inches) of rain
  • Darkest month was December 1930, with barely 7 hours of sunshine
  • Sunniest month was July 1989, with 255 hours of sunshine
  • The Great Storm of 1962 destroyed hundreds of trees on the estate

Given their substantial stake in agriculture, landowners of the 18th and 19th centuries wanted a better understanding of weather and climate.  Their extensive records helped build a foundation for what would later become the science of meteorology.  Today, they provide detailed local climate histories. At Chatsworth, observations are still taken every morning at 9AM.

PWS at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England. Credit: Melissa Fleming

PWS at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England. Credit: Melissa Fleming.

National Weather Observer’s Day

Today is National Weather Observer’s Day in the US. While not an official federal holiday, it is a day to celebrate people who love to observe the weather.

Without a doubt, weather is a serious business. Professional meteorologists work around the clock to monitor conditions and create forecasts aimed at protecting life and property. But, there are also non-professionals who are awe-inspired by the show Mother Nature puts on everyday. These enthusiasts love to observe and talk about the weather. Some even volunteer as “spotters” for the NWS to provide ground truth observations that supplement radar data. Simply put, these are people who are interested in weather beyond the emoji on their smart phone app.

It is also important to remember that the science of meteorology began with the work of dedicated amateur observers like John Jeffries, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Luke Howard.  They were fascinated by weather and simply wanted to understand it better. As Henri Poincaré – the famous physicist and mathematician said,  “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.”

Earth Day 2016

Everyday 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.

Forty-six years after the original, Earth Day celebrations are now held in nearly 200 countries. This year, the date is more significant than ever as hundreds of government officials from around the world gathered at the UN to sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Image Credit: William Anders/NASA

“Earth Rise” from 1968 highlighted how fragile and unique the Earth really is.                              Credit: William Anders/NASA

St Patrick’s Day Weather History in NYC

A longstanding tradition in New York City, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade has marched in all types of weather without missing a beat. Below is a look at the weather history for March 17th in the Big Apple.

While the first parade is reported to have taken place in 1762, official weather records for Central Park only date back to 1876. Even without information on the earliest events, the 140 years of data that are available show that the city has experienced a wide range of weather conditions on St Patrick’s Day. But given that March is when the seasons transition from winter to spring, this is not that surprising.

Looking back, rain dampened the parade only 47 times over 140 years and snow was only noted at ten events. Temperatures were above average about 33% of the time, but the overall trend shows warming conditions through the years especially after the 1970s. The city’s average high temperature on St Patrick’s Day is 50°F and the average low is 35°F.

Below are some charts based on NWS data showing the daily records for March 17th and the temperature history for the date in NYC.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


Source: NOAA/NWS


Source: NOAA/NWS

National Weatherperson’s Day 2016

Today is National Weatherperson’s Day in the United States. While not an official federal holiday, it is a day to recognize the work of all individuals involved in the field of meteorology – not just prognosticating groundhogs.

According to the NWS, February 5, 1744 was the birthday of Dr. John Jeffries – one of America’s first weather observers. As a Boston based physician with a deep interest in weather, he kept detailed records of daily weather conditions from 1774 to 1816. He also took the first known upper air observations from a hot air balloon in 1784.

Recognizing the significant contributions Dr. Jeffries made to the science of meteorology, this date was chosen in his honor.

Dr. John Jeffries - National Weather Person's Day

Dr. John Jeffries taking weather measurements high above the ground in a hot air balloon. Source: Wonderful Balloon Acesnts