Civil War-era U.S. Navy ships’ logs to be explored for climate data, maritime history

Coaling Admiral Farragut’s fleet at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, circa 1862.

U.S. Library of Congress/Flickr
Coaling Admiral Farragut’s fleet at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, circa 1862.

A new grant will let a University of Washington-based project add a new fleet to its quest to learn more about past climate from the records of long-gone mariners. The UW is among the winners of the 2017 “Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives” awards, announced Jan. 4 by the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Library and Information Resources.

The new $482,018 grant to the UW, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and the National Archives Foundation will allow the project to digitize the logbooks, muster rolls and related materials from U.S. naval vessels, focusing on the period from 1861 to 1879.

“Very few of the marine weather observations diligently recorded by Navy officers since the early 1800s have been digitized and made accessible for modern climate and weather research,” said principal investigator Kevin Wood, of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, a research center operated by the UW and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The Civil War- and Reconstruction-era logs we are targeting here are particularly useful to fill in and extend our knowledge of past weather conditions around the world, from the mid-19th century to the beginning of the 20th century.”

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Q&A: UW’s Shuyi Chen on hurricane science, forecasting and the 2017 hurricane season

Shuyi Chen and graduate student Adja Savarin, who is also now at the UW, flew June 21, 2017, on a NASA DC-8 research aircraft into Tropical Storm Cindy. They measured temperature, moisture, pressure and winds using “dropsondes” deployed from the aircraft.

Shuyi Chen and grad student Adia Savarin on a NASA DC-8 research aircraft during Tropical Storm Sandy in 2017.

The United States just suffered the most intense hurricane season in more than a decade, and possibly the costliest ever. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in mid-August. Hurricane Irma struck Florida in early September, followed just two weeks later by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

Now, with the close of hurricane season on Nov. 30, new UW faculty member Shuyi Chen, professor in the UW’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences and an expert on hurricanes, answered a few questions about the state of hurricane forecasting and the 2017 storm season.

Read the Q&A at UW Today »

Ship exhaust makes oceanic thunderstorms more intense

Lightning near an aircraft carrier in the Strait of Malacca.

Thunderstorms directly above two of the world’s busiest shipping lanes are significantly more powerful than storms in areas of the ocean where ships don’t travel, according to new research.

A new study mapping lightning around the globe finds lightning strokes occur nearly twice as often directly above heavily-trafficked shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea than they do in areas of the ocean adjacent to shipping lanes that have similar climates.

The difference in lightning activity can’t be explained by changes in the weather, according to the study’s authors, who conclude that aerosol particles emitted in ship exhaust are changing how storm clouds form over the ocean.

“It’s one of the clearest examples of how humans are actually changing the intensity of storm processes on Earth through the emission of particulates from combustion,” said Joel Thornton, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of the new study in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Read more at American Geophysical Union »

Q&A: How Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Yellowstone National Park are confronting climate change

Snowcapped mountains in the distance with a wooden barn in foreground.

Jon Sullivan, PD Photo/Wikipedia
Grand Teton National Park, in western Wyoming, is included in the book’s focus area.

The Northern Rocky Mountain ecosystem includes huge swaths of federal lands, two national parks and some of the most spectacular wild spaces in the country. University of Washington researchers are helping managers of those lands prepare for a shifting climate.

Climate Change and Rocky Mountain Ecosystems,” a book published in August, was edited by Jessica Halofsky, a UW research ecologist in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and David Peterson, a senior research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and faculty member at the UW.

The book brings together years of conversation about what resource managers are seeing — and doing — on the ground. While Halofsky and Peterson wrote the introduction, other chapters were written by scientists and resource managers who are members of the Northern Rockies Adaptation Partnership, a group of 35 organizations that the two UW environmental scientists co-lead.

Read the UW Today Q&A »

Record-low 2016 Antarctic sea ice due to ‘perfect storm’ of tropical, polar conditions

Arctic ice with water between large chunks of ice.

NASA/Kathryn Hansen
“I’ve spent many years working on tropical climate and El Niño, and it amazes me to see its far-reaching impacts,” Stuecker said.

While winter sea ice in the Arctic is declining so dramatically that ships can now navigate those waters without any icebreaker escort, the scene in the Southern Hemisphere is much different. Sea ice around Antarctica has actually increased slightly during winter — until last year.

About a year ago, a dramatic drop in Antarctic sea ice during spring in the Southern Hemisphere brought its maximum area to its lowest level in 40 years of record keeping. Ocean temperatures were also unusually warm. This exceptional, sudden nosedive in Antarctica differs from the long-term decline in the Northern Hemisphere. A new UW study, published Aug. 24 in Geophysical Research Letters, shows that a lack of Antarctic sea ice in 2016 was in part due to a unique one-two punch from atmospheric conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean and around the South Pole.

“This combination of factors, all these things coming together in a single year, was basically the ‘perfect storm,’ for Antarctic sea ice,” said corresponding author Malte Stuecker, a UW postdoctoral researcher in atmospheric sciences. “While we expect a slow decline in the future from global warming, we don’t expect such a rapid decline in a single year to happen very often.”

Read more at UW Today »

Earth likely to warm more than 2 degrees this century

Atmospheric Sciences' Dargan Frierson
Atmospheric Sciences’ Dargan Frierson

Warming of the planet by 2 degrees Celsius is often seen as a “tipping point” that people should try to avoid by limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

But the Earth is very likely to exceed that change, according to new University of Washington research. A study from lead-author and Professor of Statistics and Sociology Adrian Raftery and Associate Professor of Atmospheric SciencesDargan Frierson uses statistical tools to show only a 5 percent chance that Earth will warm 2 degrees or less by the end of this century. It shows a mere 1 percent chance that warming could be at or below 1.5 degrees, the target set by the 2016 Paris Agreement.

“Countries argued for the 1.5 C target because of the severe impacts on their livelihoods that would result from exceeding that threshold. Indeed, damages from heat extremes, drought, extreme weather and sea level rise will be much more severe if 2 C or higher temperature rise is allowed,” said Frierson. “Our results show that an abrupt change of course is needed to achieve these goals.”

The new, statistically-based projections, published July 31 in Nature Climate Change, show a 90 percent chance that temperatures will increase this century by 2.0 to 4.9 C.

Read more at UW Today »

Researchers find more efficient way to make oil from dead trees

A container of bio oil, produced by the UW research team.

University of Washington
A container of bio oil, produced by the UW research team.

The mountain pine beetle has destroyed more than 40 million acres of forest in the western United States — an area roughly the size of Washington state.

The beetles introduce a fungus that prevents water and critical nutrients from traveling within a tree. They also lay eggs under the conifers’ bark, and their feeding larvae help kill trees — sometimes just weeks after the initial attack. Dead trees can fall at any moment or add fuel to wildfires, and scientists and land managers are left scrambling to deal with millions of these precarious giants. Harvesting the wood isn’t an option because the infestation stains it and causes the tree to crack inside.

A University of Washington team, including Environmental and Forest SciencesFernando Resende, has made headway on a solution to remove beetle-killed trees from the forest and use them to make renewable transportation fuels or high-value chemicals. The researchers have refined this technique to process larger pieces of wood, saving time and money in future commercial applications. They published their methods last month in the journal Fuel.

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‘Black swan’ events strike animal populations

A black swan (Cygnus atratus) seen in New Zealand. The black swan metaphor refers to a previous assumption that the birds did not exist, but later were found in the wild — signifying a surprising change of thought.

Bernard Spragg/Flickr
A black swan (Cygnus atratus) seen in New Zealand. The black swan metaphor refers to a previous assumption that the birds did not exist, but later were found in the wild — signifying a surprising change of thought.

Black swan events are rare and surprising occurrences that happen without notice and often wreak havoc on society. The metaphor has been used to describe banking collapses, devastating earthquakes and other major surprises in financial, social and natural systems.

A new analysis by the University of Washington and Simon Fraser University is the first to document that black swan events also occur in animal populations and usually manifest as massive, unexpected die-offs. The results were published online March 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“No one has really looked at the prevalence of these black swan events in animal population abundance before,” said lead author Sean Anderson, a UW postdoctoral researcher in aquatic and fishery sciences. “People associate the phrase with financial market crashes, and being able to take that term and apply it to another system gives context about what we’re seeing in animal populations.”

The researchers analyzed data from more than 600 animal populations, including mammals, birds, fishes and insects. They found that drastic changes in populations occurred in about 4 percent of the animals they surveyed, most commonly in birds.

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UW’s Kristin Laidre awarded Pew marine fellowship to study effects of climate change, subsistence hunting on polar bears

“Tumass, NW Greenland.” The man photographed is a polar bear subsistence hunter in the Arctic.

Tiina Itkonen
“Tumass, NW Greenland.” The man photographed is a polar bear subsistence hunter in the Arctic.

Polar bears depend on sea ice for essential tasks like hunting and breeding. As Arctic sea ice disappears due to climate change, bears across the species’ 19 subpopulations are feeling the strain.

But even as scientists try to quantify just how much melting sea ice is affecting polar bears, another group that depends on the iconic mammal for subsistence also is at risk of losing an important nutritional and economic resource. Indigenous people throughout the Arctic harvest polar bears each year. How that activity ― combined with climate change over the long term ― will impact bear populations in the future requires more science and monitoring.

A new, two-part University of Washington project aims to explore the interacting effects of climate change and subsistence hunting on polar bears, while also illuminating the cultural value of the species to indigenous peoples and the role they play in conservation. Led by Kristin Laidre, a marine biologist at the UW’s Polar Science Center and the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, the three-year project will include a public art-science exhibition that combines photography, storytelling and science focused on polar bears, climate change and local Inuit communities in Greenland.

“Broadly, people know polar bears are negatively affected by loss of sea ice, so they are understandably upset to hear polar bears are also being hunted,” Laidre said. “The reality is, the reason for the projected decline of polar bears is a much bigger, global problem related to human-caused climate change and is largely unrelated to harvest. Managing and conserving polar bears in a changing climate has to include working closely with local Arctic communities and respecting subsistence needs.”

Read more at UW Today »

‘The blob’ of abnormal conditions boosted Western U.S. ozone levels

Researchers use the ski lifts to carry equipment to sample air on the summit. A radon sensor travels to the peak of Mount Bachelor.

Dan Jaffe/University of Washington Bothell
Researchers use ski lifts to carry equipment to sample air on the summit. A radon sensor travels to the peak of Mount Bachelor.

An unusually warm patch of seawater off the West Coast in late 2014 and 2015, nicknamed “the blob,” had cascading effects up and down the coast. Its sphere of influence was centered on the marine environment but extended to weather on land.

A University of Washington Bothell study now shows that this strong offshore pattern also influenced air quality. The climate pattern increased ozone levels above Washington, Oregon, western Utah and northern California, according to a study published Feb. 15 in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

“Washington and Oregon was really the bullseye for the whole thing, because of the location of the winds,” said lead author Dan Jaffe, a professor of atmospheric sciences at UW Bothell. “Salt Lake City and Sacramento were on the edge of this event, but because their ozone is typically higher, those cities felt some of the more acute effects.”

Read more at UW Today »