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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Most people associate spring with flowers and mild weather. But as a transitional season, it can also produce a rollercoaster of temperatures, including serious cold spells. Wearing a short sleeved shirt one day and a parka the next, you may start to wonder when the cold will finally fade away.
The answer to that question largely depends on location. Below is a map from NOAA that shows the typical final freeze dates across the continental US. While actual weather conditions vary from year to year, the dates shown are based on climatology – a thirty-year average of temperature data.
Here in New York City, our last freeze of the season usually comes in mid-April.
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