Science Through Backyard Astronomy

With so many of us home or not venturing far from home in these COVID-19 times, it’s a great time to do some local backyard astronomy. And you can contribute to valuable citizen science efforts by submitting your observations to GLOBE at Night. This year’s campaign extends through the entire calendar year, so take advantage of any clear skies, do some observing, and be included in this study of light pollution worldwide!

As of July 2020, citizen scientists from around the world have contributed 20,442 night sky observations to help quantify light pollution around the world. Participating is simple: go outside about one hour after sunset and locate the constellation(s) identified for that month.

August: Cygnus, Hercules
September: Cygnus
October: Cygnus, Pegasus
November: Pegasus, Perseus
December: Perseus

(For star-hunting tips as well as Southern Hemisphere constellations, view the GLOBE at Night website.)

View of Cygnus the Swan in the northern sky, Creative Commons image from Till Credner.

Once you’ve found the constellation in the sky, compare your observation with a brightness magnitude chart, and report your finding along with your latitude and longitude on the website. You can look at the GLOBE at Night results to see how the light pollution of your skies compares with that in other locations around the world.

This year’s observing period continues through December, so visit the website to learn more, get out there and marvel at the stars, and submit your observation to be counted and contribute to learning more about light pollution, both locally and globally.

Simple Math with Oil Spills

A blast from the past! Oil spills and unit conversations, a middle school Practical Uses of Math and Science (PUMAS) example published in 1999.

The short story: On February 4, 1999, the 639-foot freighter New Carissa became grounded near Coos Bay on the Oregon coast. Aboard the ship were 400,000 gallons of bunker fuel, threatening to leak from the fractured hull and damage the state’s fragile beach habitats. With an approaching storm increasing the chances of a disastrous spill, authorities decided to set the ship afire, a choice not without controversy and risks of its own. What would be the potential scale of the disaster if that much oil did spill? 400,000 gallons is equivalent to 400,000 milk jugs –- a lot of milk. But how much space does 400,000 gallons really take up? Some simple arithmetic can help put the quantity in perspective.

See the full article at: https://pumas.gsfc.nasa.gov/files/02_23_99_1.pdf

Eyjafjallajokull – and how local eruptions can have broader-scale impacts

Today’s news carried this interesting article about the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. (Typing the word Eyjafjallajokull is great fun–and and trying to correctly say it even more so.)

In certain cases, volcanic eruptions spew large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, where it forms an aerosol, essentially a suspension of sulfate particles in a gas. These aerosols can stay high in Earth’s atmosphere, often for two to three years, and, if the eruption is large enough, will spread out over an entire hemisphere or even the globe. Aerosols absorb some of the longer wavelength terrestrial radiation from Earth, warming the upper atmosphere. They also reflect incoming sunlight back to space, leading to cooler surface temperatures. In this way, a localized volcanic eruption can affect climate worldwide–past volcanic events have led to colder seasons, freezing at lower latitudes, and crop failures. Learn more by reading this story of how scientists have used observations and models to fit the pieces of the volcano-climate puzzle together.

Melting Snow and Rising Rivers

This map of snow water equivalent shows the amount of water contained in the snowpack–essentially, the depth of water released if the entire snowpack was melted instantaneously.

snow water equivalent

The map comes from the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center, which also provides information about snow depth and other snow-related variables.

Snow water equivalent provides useful information for water supply (and things like soil moisture for agriculture and other land uses) as well as for flood forecasting. It’s an important number to watch during the spring months, particularly along the Nebraska-Iowa and North Dakota/South Dakota-Minnesota borders.

In these areas, the snow is melting (at last!). But there’s been a lot of snow over much of the upper midwest this winter, and it’s melting quickly. That can mean lots of surface runoff, especially in areas of deep frost, which can cause localized flooding. Eventually, this runoff makes it into the rivers, where high water levels and potential ice jamming can lead to rivers spilling over banks and levees, resulting in property damage, and in some cases, potential loss of life.

The National Weather Service has a flood safety website to help you learn about the flood danger in your particular area and review safety tips. Understanding the danger as well as the actions you can take will help you be better prepared if or when flooding does occur.