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The Value of Remote Sensing: Bird Migrations, Coal Combustion Cooling, and Wildfires (Monday Morning Link Dump)

Posted in Geeky Science Stuff

Here is my Monday morning link dump. File all of this under geeky science stuff:

First, Cliff Mass, our local weather guru, does annual posts around this time of year on using weather radar to track bird migrations. This year’s post is particularly interesting because he discusses some of the weather dynamics we’ve had lately and how that is likely inhibiting migrations, and then goes on to provide a great series of images like this one that illustrates the massive migration that has taken place as weather conditions have become favorable:

Bird migration image from the Langley Hill weather radar. Colors are velocities–green being towards the radar, reds and yellows away from the radar. This shows the southward migration of birds in a dramatic fashion.


I’d encourage you to take some time to read Cliff Mass’s post–it gives a great overview of the intersection of weather and ecology and how advances in weather radar allow us to better document this phenomenon.

Second, NASA’s Earth Observatory tweeted this summary of Eric Leibensperger’s research on surface temperatures in the United States between 1930 and 1990 this morning (although the summary is a bit over a year old). What Dr. Leibensperger’s research showed was a cooling trend in the central and eastern United States from 1930 to 1990, attributable to sulfate emissions from coal combustion, which are light-colored molecules that cause scattering and reflecting of sunlight directly and also indirectly by making clouds more reflective and longer-lasting. His work also showed that the cooling trend reversed between 2005 and 2010, a result of sulfate emissions’ restrictions under the Clean Air Act. This research illustrates why human-caused climate alterations are properly called “climate change” and not global warming, and, while the dynamic of sulfate emissions and localized cooling is not a new concept, this research is the best graphical demonstration of that link that I’ve seen.

Finally, the trip over to NASA’s Earth Observatory page resulted in me stumbling across this series of images of the Rim Fire near Yosemite. If you live in the western United States, you’ve probably seen coverage of the Rim Fire in the media over the past couple of weeks. If you live in the Sierras or in Nevada, you’ve suffered the smoke from the fires first hand. My parents live in Lake Tahoe and have included “smoke reports” in my discussions with them–the benchmark being whether you can see across the lake on a particular day or not because of the smoke. The collection of daily images are dramatic in showing how fast this fire grew and the direction in which it spread, sweeping to the east/northeast and into Yosemite over a period of days:

NASA infrared images of the Rim Fire, starting August 20th and going through September 4th.


What are the policy implications of these images and datasets? The coal combustion piece illustrates both the effectiveness of the Clean Air Act in reducing sulfate emissions and how interconnected atmospheric chemistry and weather are. The bird migration piece is mostly a curiosity, but it does illustrate how improvements to our weather detection capabilities can produce fodder for us science geeks. The Rim Fire imaging brings to mind many different policy decisions, fire suppression and response to wildfires being two of these decisions, and the need to invest in satellites that give us real-time data that can be used in responding to natural phenomena that threaten lives and property.