Category Archives: Weather

They Really Don’t Know

The weather.  It is always with us, and it often affects what we do any given day. Radio, television, the paper,  The Weather Channel, and AccuWeather all have lots to say about what is going to happen.  Why in the hell can’t they do better?  Dammit, we need to know.  The meteorologists have a tremendous amount of information gathered from all over the globe.  The planet spins at a constant rate in its orbit around the sun.  So do better, already.

As long as our weather here along the Colorado Front Range is coming from the west I can look at the national radar map and do about as well as all those people with advanced degrees who understand what adabiatic means.  If the weather is coming up from the gulf, they do better than me, but that’s about it.  By the way, it is probably going to rain in Seattle.

The weather tomorrow is probably going to be like today.  Except when it isn’t.  There is enough rain for stuff to grow in the Midwest.  Not so much in Hanksville, Utah.  Oops, I have digressed from weather to climate.  Lots of people do that.  They point to the latest big storm or dry spell to deny climate change.  Apples and oranges, folks.  They both grow on trees, but that’s as far as it goes.  We may be growing oranges in Paonia if this current trend continues.

Climate scientists can document the effects of big climate events like meteors hitting off Yucatán  or when big volcanoes send ash all around the planet, but have more trouble explaining long term trends.  One thing they can say for sure, the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the climate.  There is a long term carbon cycle of sequestering and release of the stuff that is well documented.  Plants trap carbon.  The ocean traps carbon.  It gets stored, then something happens so more is released than stored.  These days, much arctic permafrost is thawing and releasing sequestered carbon.

That excess release is happening these days.  Methane is part of the cycle as well.  In the U.S., the highest atmospheric levels of methane are in the Four Corners region, home to thousands of oil and gas wells.  With lax or no regulation, many of those wells leak.  In addition,  in huge quantities are stored on the sea floor. If the global sea temperatures are raised by two degrees Celsius,  methane in those hydrates could be released into the atmosphere, accelerating the warming trend.

So, what is the tipping point where the warming trend is irreversible?  Nobody knows for sure.  We do know, however, that greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is increasing and left unchecked, reaching the tipping point is inevitable. We just don’t know when.  Our earth has been through this warming – cooling trend many times.  The planet will seek equilibrium at some point.  This takes thousands to millions of years.  Humans don’t work in that time scale.

Don’t panic.  As John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

Weather

Weather Map

One of my Insight Meditation teachers likes to say everything is what it is.  Well, the weather comes and it goes.  If you are curious about the weather, look outside.  We seem to be preoccupied about the weather.  One of the big small talk topics is weather.  Every local TV newscasts has two segments on the weather.  The national news now has a weather story every evening. 

We always have weather.  It is always changing.  Regardless of what they say, we will get what we are going to have.  The meteorologists can give us an educated guess, but so what?  Look outside.  That is what we have.  Life goes on. 

We are at the mercy of the weather.  It’s hot, cold, wet, snowy, or beautiful.  The changes bring beauty.  We should be preoccupied with the beauty.  My teachers talk about impermanence.  That’s weather, that’s life.  We are born, live, and die.  The storm comes, stays a while, and is gone.   

Weather is not tomorrow, it is now.  Feel the cold, your stiff fingers.  See the sunrise, breathe the coffee smell, listen to the coffee shop chatter.  That is the weather.  Life is now.  Not tomorrow, not yesterday.  Yes, we have to act.  Work, laundry, get the brakes fixed, stop that faucet from dripping.   

The lesson is to feel the weather while stopping the drip.  Enjoy the light when the driver in front of you is texting after the light changes.  You will get there.  He will get there.  The clouds will be gray.  The sun will shine.  It is.  You are.  That’s all.

Climate Change

Florida Flooding

Florida Flooding

Here it is, the last day of November, and we still have some tomatoes from our garden.  We had the hard freeze a couple of weeks ago, but we brought quite a few in before it froze.  This fall has been the fall of pasta sauce and tomato soup.  Traditionally the first freeze is in September or early October.  Not this year.  Now, just because we have one warm fall doesn’t necessarily mean global warming, it is a matter of relatively long term trends.  That is happening, folks.   

Worldwide, it is about one degree Celsius and climbing.  The culprit is carbon.  We need carbon, our bodies are mostly water, but carbon hangs everything together.  Florida, for example, is mostly calcium carbonate, limestone.  The limestone formed even the peninsula was underwater with a climate encouraging the growth of untold billions of tiny organisms with calcium carbonate shells.  They die, and if whales don’t eat them, their shells sink to the sea floor.  Well, even if they do get eaten, the whale turds are calcareous.   

Porous Limestone

Porous Limestone

Millions of years and sea level change, and Florida emerges.  The cycle doesn’t end there.  It rains on Florida, and the slightly acidic rain starts dissolving the limestone, sending the carbonates back to the sea.  Enough of the limestone has dissolved to make the peninsula a honeycomb.  Sinkholes, underground rivers, high tides bringing ocean water inland and flooding streets in  Broward county.  The southern part of the state is headed back underwater.   The really big deal is that sea level is rising.   

I have given an example of the carbonate cycle, which is going on worldwide.  The other cycle going on is the water cycle.  Our planet is delicately balanced in temperature around the freezing point of water.  The water evaporates, and if it is cool enough, some of it falls as snow and accumulates, mostly in the polar regions.  At times the ice forming from all that snow has made it as far as Central Park in New York,  that is a lot of water tied up on land.  Sea level drops, and Florida emerges.  

Currently, the cycle is going the opposite direction.  The ice is melting, and the process seems to be accelerating.  Why?  Carbon.  Here in Denver, I see huge coal trains hauling coal south to be burned to run air conditioners in Texas.  The coal, carbon, is ripped from the ground where it has lain for millions of years, mostly dead plant life converted into coal.  It is burned, sending carbon into the atmosphere.  I drove here to the coffee shop burning gasoline, which comes from oil made deep underground from what once were living organisms.  The carbon goes into the air, the climate changes due to human activity.  We are in a new epoch, the Anthropocene.

Elemental carbon is fairly rare.  Diamonds, graphite.  Carbon likes to combine with other stuff to make, well, us and other living things.  That carbon gets sequestered in the earth, reducing the amount of carbon available to make new stuff.  There is a cyclical balance, dependent on worldwide temperature and, lately, us.  We burn carbon based fuels and the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere.   

The sun shines, warming everything up.  A lot of that heat gets radiated back into space, maintaining a balance favorable to life.  When that radiant heat meets a CO2 molecule, it warms the molecule.  More carbon, more heat in the atmosphere.  That’s greenhouse gas doing its thing.  The global climate warms up, making some regions wetter, some more dry.  We have gotten used to having a relatively stable climate, and we adapt to it in many ways.   

When the rain and snow fall changes, our adaptations stop working so well.  This is especially important in coastal regions, because all that polar ice starts melting and sea level rises.  Most of the population lives near the coast.  With the coasts moving inland, the people and all their stuff will have to move as well.  Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan gets flooded in big storms.  The subway tunnels flood, and people have trouble getting around.  The time is coming when they will be living in central New Jersey.  The horror. 

There are lots of people denying all this, saying it is just the normal weather cycle.  That is true, but it is a new normal, and is changing.   What to do? Stop putting so much carbon into the air and start putting it back into the earth.   That means big change in the way we do things, and those getting rich on the status quo don’t want their businesses upset.   Oil and coal, mostly, but they drive all of our economy.  So, they say it isn’t so, and let’s burn, burn, burn.   

What goes around comes around.  It is just a matter of time.

Minneapolis

I recently went to Minneapolis to help my brother-in-law.  He was on his bicycle returning from doing some volunteer work when he was hit by a car.  His leg was broken, and the ambulance took him to the Hennepin County Medical Center, a huge facility, where he had surgery on the leg.  There he was, in the hospital then in a nice rehab facility, immobile.   

I traveled from Denver to serve as legs.  He need his mail and things from his place and the police report for starters.  The mail and things was no problem.  He lives in one of Minneapolis’ hip neighborhoods.  Lots of bicycle shops and pizza joints.  The police report was another matter. 

Minneapolis City Hall

Minneapolis City Hall

The City website gave a wrong address.  I asked around, and was sent to City Hall next door.  It is quite an edifice, a big pile of brown brick meant to be in some architectural style.  There is nothing on the outside of the building to identify it as City Hall.  I found the right office and was told I had to have written permission from Jim to obtain the report.  So, back to the rehab center for the note, and back downtown.  A little later in the day, I had to park a few blocks from City Hall.  I said the location out loud to myself so I would remember.   

I got the report ($0.40) and headed back to the car.  I couldn’t remember where I parked the damn thing.  I walked around for three hours with no luck.  I even had to stop for something to eat as I was getting tired.  I asked for help at a police station and got nothing but sympathy.   

I finally got a cab and we found the car in ten minutes.  I was looking on north-south streets and the car was on an east-west street.  Later it dawned on me I could have pinned the location on the GPS in my phone.  I guess I will have to learn how to use the thing after three years.  I was as stressed out as at any time in my life.  I just felt old and clueless. 

I stayed in a hotel down by Mall of America and the airport, not wanting to stay downtown.  It is easy to go back and forth if it is not rush hour.  Minneapolis highways seem more congested than Denver, and the streets are in worse shape. It’s an older city and the winters are worse.   

The hotel restaurant was an Outback Steak House.  It was entirely too much noise for me.  I ended up at the Denny’s (!) down the street.  After running around an unfamiliar city, I was too tired every evening to even turn the TV on. 

Lots of years ago I spent some time in Minneapolis Searching For Truth.  I don’t know if I found truth, but I came to appreciate the city.  It is also where Carol went to high school and the University of Minnesota, so there are connections other than the one with Jim.   

As in every big city, downtown emphasizes the diversity of the population.  In Minneapolis, I expect to see blonde Scandinavians.  Nope, African Americans and Somalis.  The city has the largest Somali population in the country.  I don’t think they are Lutherans.   

The only complaint I have about Minneapolis is the climate.  It rained.  Several times.  Once, a lot.  This child of the desert can tolerate some rain, but not much.   What happened in Denver when I got home?  It rained.  Where is the justice?

Dirty Denver

Windstorm

Windstorm

The wind blows here in Denver, and it is not all air.  Those mountains just west of us are wearing down.  Most of the sand and dirt ends up in the rivers, put the wind blows some of the mountains away.  If you park your car outside, you already know this.  The dust covers everything on the car, and you have to wash the damn thing.  Mostly the dust is that tan/brown dirt color, but sometimes it is red when parts of Utah decide to take a visit.

The constant deposition of wind-blown dirt is why ancient cities get buried.  The process is slow, but relentless.  Denver is being buried, but we haul a lot of it away.  Our older house has what seems to be sunken sidewalks.  It is the wind- blown dust combined with organic matter (grass clippings) to form topsoil.

Carol likes to say that a lot of the stuff that accumulates is spider legs.  True, along with the exoskeletons of millions of insects.  In geologic terms the rate of deposition of all that stuff is fairly rapid.

Here on Colorado’s Front Range we get wind, but nothing like the mountain winds, unless you live in Boulder or other places at the foot of the mountains.  The mountains are high enough to get some of the higher altitude winds that the flatlands don’t get much of.  Also, when a weather system blows in, the mountains act as a barrier, forcing all that moving air up.  As it rises, it cools, gets more dense, and descends on the lee side of the mountains. As it falls, it gains velocity and tends to warm up, creating our famous chinook winds.

Loess Soil Windblown Dirt

Loess Soil
Windblown Dirt

As the wind moves on the plains, it’s velocity decreases and some of the dirt it carries falls out.  Close to the mountains, a lot of it is sand.  That explains the sand hills we have close to the mountains.  You can identify the sand because it does not support plant growth as well as soil.  Sandy areas are cow country, no farming.  A little farther east, the dirt falls down.  A lot of dirt falls down, forming loess, a German term for wind-blown dirt deposits.  Eastern Colorado has thousands of square miles of loess.  Without irrigation, it is usually planted in wheat.

Of course, all the water or wind-borne sediment is headed for Mississippi, Lousiana, or the gulf.  Most of that Mississippi mud will end up as shale.  At some point plate tectonics will shove it up as dry land and the cycle starts over.  Most of the sand will eventually end up in the streams, get buried, and form sandstone like the Dakota sandstone dinosaur fossils are found in.  In other places, tremendous deposits of wind blown sand accumulate, eventually forming the sandstone that blankets the Colorado Plateau.

That dirt accumulating in your lawn and garden is part of a recycling process going on all over our planet for millions of years.  The process will continue long after we are all gone, as long as there is air and water on the planet.  To me, the whole thing is a miracle, all these geologic processes creating conditions existing long enough for the evolutionary mistake known as humanity to develop.

Weather

Climate Change

Climate Change

2013 Flood

There is currently a lot of controversy about climate change and whether humankind has a role in the warming trend.  While I think it is true that pouring huge amounts of sequestered carbon is the culprit, I don’t think it matters much for us here in Colorado and much of the west. 

We live in a land of extremes except for the rainy Pacific Northwest, but, they have their earthquakes and volcanos.  Here in Colorado, we dwell in a land of extremes.  The west is dry, it snows in the mountains, the Front Range is kind of a mix, and it is pretty dry in the east.  That varies from year to year.  It varies a lot.   

In the late nineteenth century it was a wet cycle in the eastern prairie, and the railroads made millions enticing settlers to buy their land and get rich farming.  The population in eastern Colorado peaked then and has been declining ever since.  The mountain ski areas have lots of snow some years and almost no snow other years.  The western desert country looks dry and desolate most of the time, but I have seen it bloom in a stunning variety of color.   

Then there are the floods, blizzards, and tornados, often followed by drought.  The one thing we can count on is change.  There are long term trends.  Most archeologists think one reason the ancestral Pueblo Indians left southwestern Colorado was a prolonged drought cycle.  Anyone who tries to raise dry land beans in that country can tell you not much has changed. 

2013 Flood

2013 Flood

Here along the base of the mountains we have the extremes as well. There was the drought of 2002, and the floods of 2013.  The mountains create an unusual weather pattern that stalls along the mountain front, bringing more moisture than the land can handle.  That is when lots of the mountains wash out into the flat country.  It has been going on for more than sixty million years.  The gravel in the Platte River in Nebraska is Rocky Mountain gravel.  Some of the Louisiana mud is Long’s peak mud.   

Some climate models say climate change is going to dry Colorado out, other models say it will be wetter.  My money is on more extreme weather.  Longer, more violent wet periods and long droughts.  Look for more frequent floods, not the thirty or forty year cycle we have had since the first European-American settlers and miners arrived.  Think about the tornados and hailstorms recently.   

I like the extremes.  We have our regular four seasons here but the winters are milder than in Iowa.  It can get hot but there are few days over one hundred degrees, but not like southeastern Utah.  I think that may change, hotter in the summer.  I don’t think the winters will be colder.  I can remember forty below in Boulder when I was flunking out of CU.  Twenty below seems to be more the cold winter norm now.  What I do not like is the hailstorms.  I don’t think the insurance companies like them much either.  Homeowners insurance costs keep rising.  That hail is hard on the garden as well. We had only one tomato plant survive last year. 

One of the big impacts of climate change will be on water supplies.  The amount of precipitation may not change, but if it is warmer, the snowpacks will not last as long in the spring.  That means more spring floods and a shorter runoff period, which will impact water storage.  That could be bad news for the populated Front Range.  People keep coming, but there will not be more water, and a lot of the big spring runoff will go out of the state.  That will be good for the Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska, but bad for Parker and Highlands ranch. 

I spent a long time in the water business, and it always disturbed me watching all that high quality drinking water being used to attempt to replicate Surrey or Connecticut foliage in the Great American Desert.   All that bluegrass will have to go. The urban forest will have more drought-hardy trees.  Denver Water’s customers have done a good job of conserving since the big drought of 2002, but the bluegrass model of landscaping continues.  In Denver, daily water consumption is about 110 million gallons per day in winter.  I the hot part of summer, it’s over 400 million gallons per day, most of it run out onto the ground. 

At our house, we have significantly reduced the size of our lawn, but we still have a lot of crabgrass.  It should be buffalo grass and blue grama, both native drought-resistant grasses.  They don’t stay green all summer, so we are stalling and paying the water bill.  Marijuana legalization is bringing lots of people to Colorado, and the economy is booming.  Those people use water, and lots of water is used growing the stuff.  One of the unintended consequences of legalizing pot is increased water consumption. 

Myself, I am not too concerned about climate change for myself.  After all I am 73 years old and don’t live on the coast.  Long term change is a reality, but as John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long range we are all dead”.