About Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming is an environmental communicator and visual artist working at the intersection of art and science. She is passionate about exploring, learning, and sharing information about the natural world. She has presented her interdisciplinary work in a variety of mediums at venues and conferences around the world.

The Only Four-Letter Words on Climate Change that Matter

There has been a sea change in the climate conversation recently. It feels like the issue has moved from one of public apathy to one that people – from politicians to members of the mainstream media – are actively discussing. For some folks, however, climate change remains an inconvenient topic.

The very phrase can elicit a heated response laced with expletives, especially from those who still deny the problem even exists. Seeing this happen repeatedly, I decided to start using a selection of a few four-letter words of my own to try to shape constructive conversations around this critical issue that affects us all.

The first is the “F-word”…. FACT.

In this era of “alternative facts” and misinformation campaigns, many people are unsure or unaware of the consensus among climate scientists on this subject. But the fact is hundreds of articles published in peer-reviewed journals show that 97% of the world’s climate scientists agree that climate change is real, human-caused, and happening now.

The second word is LOVE.

Discussing the reality of climate change in terms of something people care about tends to get their attention and elicit an emotional response. One of the beautiful things about love is that it can take many forms, with familial love being one of the strongest types. People love their families and value their health and well-being. They also tend to treasure particular places – anywhere from their hometown to a favorite vacation spot. To borrow a line from the famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau: “People protect what they love.”

Today, almost everything we love is feeling the effects of climate change. Stronger storms, rising sea levels, and expansive wildfires are posing serious risks to both human life and property. Furthermore, warming temperatures are exacerbating a variety of human health concerns as disease-carrying insects expand their territory and live longer.

From love springs HOPE.

As behavioral psychology tells us, emotion is the main driver behind most of our decisions. When people see their loved ones or the places they care about being negatively impacted, they want to take action.  This fundamental element of human nature injects a healthy dose of optimism into our climate challenge.

If we look, we will see that there are signs of hope all around us. First, there is the Paris Agreement. While the non-binding commitments of its signers are currently not enough to meet the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C, the fact that it exists is a sign that governments around the world recognize climate change as a problem. Second, there is a huge grassroots movement of everyday people, from students to senior citizens, calling attention to the issue in their communities across the country and around the world. Then, there are the economic signals. The costs of renewables, for example, are falling dramatically.  According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, almost all green energy sources can now compete with traditional fossil fuels. Furthermore, a study by Carbon Tracker, a financial think tank, found that more than 40% of the world’s coal plants are already running at a loss. This is in line with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that solar installer and wind technician will be two of the fastest-growing occupations through 2029.

While hope is about the possibility of change, it is not a PLAN.

 Individual actions, such as switching to LED light bulbs, are important first steps in addressing climate change. But the scale of the problem is massive and the solution must be as well. As such, the conversation needs to move from “what can I do?” to “what can we do?”

Society, as a whole, needs to take substantial steps toward building a sustainable future. Thoughts on how to achieve this have been laid out in various versions of the so-called Green New Deal over the years. From the original plan put forward by Thomas Friedman in his 2008 book, Hot Flat and Crowded, to the latest expanded version released in 2019 by members of Congress, the ideas are there. We just need to focus on the ones that will have the biggest impact on the problem at hand and put them into action.

Planning is essential, because TIME is of the essence.

As scientists have been telling us for years, a certain amount of climate change is irreversible given the amount of carbon dioxide we have already added to the atmosphere and oceans. But, it is not too late to avoid additional warming and worsening impacts if we act now.

As the old proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.”

That is why we all need to VOTE.

Any meaningful, large-scale action in the US has to come from the federal government level. While not every elected official is in tune with the realities of human-caused climate change, they all understand the power of an active social movement and a vocal electorate.

The lack of political will has been one of the largest impediments to government action on climate change to date. But, if we can move beyond the partisan rhetoric to talk plainly about the facts in terms of love and hope, we can all begin to plan for our collective future through the extraordinary power of the vote.

With that said, be mindful of what those in elected office and those who seek to be there are saying and, more importantly, doing about climate change. We get to judge their actions today, but history will ultimately judge ours.

More 4-letter words should be used when talking about climate change. Image credit: MF

How Trees Help Fight Climate Change

The beauty of trees has been celebrated in countless poems and images over the years. But, they are much more than aesthetic figures in the landscape. They are an essential part of the global ecosystem and play an important role in mitigating climate change.

Trees are natural carbon sinks. They absorb and store carbon dioxide, and release oxygen via photosynthesis. Through this process, forests offset 10% to 20% of American greenhouse gas emissions every year, according to the US Forest Service. Moreover, they absorb other air pollutants and particulate matter produced by the burning of fossil fuels. Scientists say trees remove over 35 billion pounds of pollution annually in the US, directly benefiting human health.

Trees also provide shade. In cities, this helps reduce the urban heat island effect.  More specifically, according to studies by the US Forest Service Center for Urban Research, neighborhoods with well-shaded streets can be 6-10°F cooler than communities without trees. This natural cooling benefit, in turn, lessens the need to run energy-consuming air conditioners during the warm summer months.

With rising temperatures leading to more heavy rain events, trees also help mitigate the impacts of flooding and landslides. Their root systems catch rainwater and reduce soil erosion. Climate Central, a non-profit environmental news organization, says trees help prevent nearly 400 billion gallons of runoff every year in the contiguous US.

So, as the saying goes “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Credit: Climate Central

Earth Day 2020: Celebrating 50 Years of Environmental Awareness and Action

Every day is Earth Day, as the saying goes. But, today marks the official celebration and fiftieth anniversay of the original event that launcehd the modern environamental movement.

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 helped lead the government to create the EPA and the pass of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Half a century later, Earth Day is now considered a global holiday celebrated with rallies and events in nearly 200 countries. These ongoing efforts to raise environmental awareness and call for govenment action have been more important than ever in recent years as the world faces the challenges of climate change. This year, however, the Coronaviurs Pandemic has moved these gatherings online.

This planet-scale public health emergency has shown how interconnected our modern world is. It has also highlighted the vital role governments must play in dealing with a crisis of such size and breadth.

Similarly, the scale of the problems presented by our changing climate are massive and require a huge government level response. That said, individual actions also add up and can collectively put pressure on elected officials to respond to the issue.  To learn more about the personal actions you can take to protect the environment, visit: https://www.earthday.org/take-action

Earthrise.  Credit: William Anders/NASA

Weather and Art: Yoko Ono Brings the Beauty of the Sky Indoors

The sky is always blue at the corner of West 72nd Street and Central Park West in New York City. That is because of “Sky”, a series of mosaic murals installed on the walls of that subway station by artist Yoko Ono.

Collectively spanning 973 square feet, the six murals create views of bright blue skies dotted with white, puffy, fair-weather clouds. Messages of hope, such as “love”, “dreams”, and “yes”, are also scattered across the subterranean skyscapes.

The murals, which are based on photographs of the sky, were designed to look slightly different from different angles. As such, they appear to mimic the movement of real clouds.

This collection of mosaics is part of the public art program, MTA Arts and Design. It was added to the station in 2018 as part of a renovation project.

Yoko Ono’s “Sky” at the W 72 subway station. Photo Credit: Melissa Fleming

March 2020: Planet’s Second Warmest March on Record

Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month with March 2020 marking the second warmest March ever recorded on this planet. Only March 2016 was warmer.

According to a report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for the month – over both land and sea surfaces – was 56.99°F. That is 2.09°F above the 20th-century average. March was also the 423rd 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 most of Asia, southern South America, and the eastern half of the contiguous US. As a whole, the lower forty-eight states posted their tenth warmest March on record.

These soaring temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. In fact, March tied February 2020 for the highest temperature departure from average for any month during ENSO neutral conditions. That means neither El Niño nor La Niña was present in the Pacific to influence temperatures.

Year to date, the first three months of 2020 were the second warmest such period of any year on record. At this point, it is very likely that 2020 will finish among the top five warmest years ever recorded. Global temperature records date back to 1880.

Credit: NOAA

Spring Storm Breaks Daily Rainfall Record in NYC

A powerful spring storm lashed the New York City area on Monday. Strong winds and heavy rain were seen across the region.

According to the NWS, 1.92 inches of rain was measured in Central Park, setting a new record for the date. The previous record of 1.26 inches had been in place since 1920. On average, the Big Apple gets 4.5 inches of rain for the entire month of April.

Stong winds were also reported across the city. At JFK airport in Queens, wind gusts reached 53mph.

The robust storm caused a number of problems across the five boroughs, including downed trees and power outages. It also forced the closure of several tent-based coronavirus testing facilities.

Storm damage in NYC. Credit: weathercom

Spring is Heating Up Across the US

Spring is a transitional season. It is generally a time when the chill of winter fades away and warmer conditions gradually return. But, as our climate changes, the season is heating up.

According to Climate Central, a non-profit news organization, spring temperatures across the contigous US have increased an average of 2°F over the past fifty years. The western part of the country has seen the largest seasonal upswing. Since 1970, Reno, NV has warmed 7.2°F and El Paso, TX has seen a rise of more than 5°F.

These warmer temperatures may feel like a boon for some, but they also bring a number of negative impacts. Less frost-free days means the allergy season is extended and disease-carrying pests like mosquitos and ticks are able to thrive longer.

Wildlife is also feeling the effects of a warming spring. The phenology, or timing, of important seasonal events like hibernation, migration, and pollination are being skewed from their once well-synced patterns.

Looking ahead, as greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, so too will the temperature and its accompanying impacts.

Credit: Climate Central

Do April Showers Really Bring May Flowers?

The phrase, “April showers bring May flowers “ has been around for centuries. It is derived from a poem called A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry, written in 1557 by Thomas Tusser, an English poet and farmer. This old adage, however, does not necessarily hold true in the northeastern United States.

Coming on the heels of the snowy months of winter, April typically produces more rain than snow. Many people, therefore, consider it a rainy month. Since water is necessary for the overall survival of plants, they also associate it with the bloom of flowers in May. Nevertheless, according to botanists, perennials – the plants that go dormant in winter and re-grow in the spring – are more dependent on the soil moisture derived from winter snowmelt and the long-term local precipitation pattern.

In the end, though, temperature is the most significant factor in determining when a flower will bloom. As soon as the weather becomes more spring-like, flowers will start to blossom, regardless of how much it rained in April or whatever the prior month was. That said, a “false spring” – a warm spell that triggers flowering but is followed by a hard frost – can kill the fragile blooms.

It is also worth noting that while April is a wet month for many places in the US, it is not always the wettest. Here in New York City, it ranks second. July takes the top spot, because of the downpours associated with its strong summer thunderstorms.

Spring Peonies. Credit: Melissa Fleming

March 2020: Seventh Warmest on Record for 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. In New York City this year, however, that tradition was turned on its head as March came in like a lamb and more or less stayed that way until a few chilly days arrived at the end of the month.

Of its thirty-one days, the month produced twenty-one with above-average readings, including two days in the 70s. This unseasonable heat helped drive the city’s mean temperature for the month up to 48°F, which is 5.5°F above normal. That means March 2020 now ranks as the city’s seventh warmest March on record.

The city had its warmest March in 1945, when the average temperature for the month was 51.1°F.

In terms of precipitation, rainfall was slightly below normal. In total, Central Park reported 3.78 inches of rain, which is 0.58 inches below average for the month. Snowfall was also below average. In fact, it was non-existent. But given the warm conditions that dominated the month, this is not that surprising. March, on average, typically brings the city 3.9 inches of snow.

Credit: The Weather Gamut