Earth Science Resources – A Sampler

Spinning up new projects at work, which means learning about new topics, which means fun! Every night this week I’ve gotten to bring home a geology textbook, and let me tell you, I’m so enamored with science books. Especially ones with lots of cool pictures. And this one has many! The book is Physical Geology (11th ed.), by Plummer, Carlson, and McGeary. It seems to be intended for an introductory survey course at the college level, but motivated high school students could certainly glean a lot, and it’s got the photos and diagrams to draw in non-student science geeks also. Or maybe I shouldn’t generalize that way—but it at least drew in this non-student science geek.

Having been through lots and lots of science textbooks over the course of my academic career and in the time since, well, the books I tend to pick up the most often really are those introductory type texts. Maybe it has to do with the nature of working in education and exploring ways to teach a wide variety of topics, not necessarily at an expert level. Maybe it’s all those pretty pictures. At any rate, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Earth science resources, and see if you wish to add any as well. Your recommendations are always welcome!

General Earth Science:
Dr. Art’s Guide to Planet Earth (Sussman). It says right on the cover that this book is for Earthling ages 12 to 120. That covers, well, lots of the population. Dr. Art takes the Earth system approach, looking at how the different components are interconnected. It’s effective. It’s basic information that a science literate public should understand. The font size is large and it’s divided into short topic sections so that even a non-science geek could get through it. I know it says 12 to 120, but maybe it should be bedtime reading for kids. Both you and they might take away a new understanding and appreciation of our planet.

Earth Science (Spaulding and Namowitz). This one is a high school textbook, but has a surprising amount of gems and nuggets of information on a full range of topics. I find it very entertaining and sometimes even enlightening reading, but we have already established that I am geek.

Turn Left at Orion (Consolmago and Davis, 3rd ed). No, it’s not a textbook. But having taught night-sky programs for a lot of years, this one is a book I’d definitely replace if my dog ate it. [Actually, he did eat the binding, but the talented folks at Kinkos were able to remedy that for me.] I like it because it has the essential observing information (what to see, and where/how to find it) but also adds some science bits so if you’re trying to explain to someone what that cluster represents, or the ages of the stars in it, it’s all in that one place. Handy. Essential.

Physical Geology (Plummer, Carlson, McGeary). Yes, already said, love the photos. And the really clear explanations with real-life scenarios. Maybe it’s because geology—like other Earth sciences—is just…relevant. Earth, it’s where we live. All that part and why I bother trying to teach, write, etc. about it. This book gave me a sense that the authors really shared that philosophy. Did I mention the awesome photos?

Essentials of Meteorology (Ahrens). Alright, this one is actually on the bookshelf at work, so I can’t look up specific details right now, but it’s the introductory resource I point people to when asked. It’s another undergraduate introductory survey course text and explains the essentials (as its name indicates) without the math. And that can be refreshing for people who want to try to understand the concepts but don’t need all the equations for fluids and heat exchange etc. etc.

The Stories Clouds Tell (LeMone). I’ve already linked to a couple of Dr. LeMone’s backyard science articles on this blog, but this book actually dates back to a talk she gave in the late 1980s. It was first published by the American Meteorological Society and recently updated and re-released and it is beautiful. Like watching clouds? Want to know what they mean in terms of weather? This book has that information, plus very clear descriptions and diagrams of how clouds form, plus some amazing photos. If there’s ever to be a multimedia tutorial produced from this book, I want to be the one to do it, yes indeed.

Web resources:
Of course this category should be filled in, but I fear that would be an endless task. Check out the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE) and the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). You can search for resources by topic and grade level. A visit to the Windows to the Universe site could show you some cool stuff, and will again provide information customizable to a specific grade level. There are oodles more: Google can help you get there, and I’ll post resources here now and again as I come across them.

In the meantime, happy reading and exploring!

Use Your (Correct) Words

This is weather.
weather observations, portland oregon

This is climate.
Gross Reservoir Colorado monthly climate data

They are not the same thing. The American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Weather and Climate (AMS, 1996) defines weather as the state of the atmosphere at a particular time. Weather consists of the short-term variations of the atmosphere, on timescales of minutes to weeks. Climate, by contrast, is the total of all statistical weather information for a given place over a specified interval of time. Climate is a “synthesis” of weather, averaged over time periods of months to decades.

In the first figure above, air and dewpoint temperatures are plotted using hourly observations over a 72-hour period. In the second figure, the monthly-averaged maximum and minimum temperatures are shown based on data from 1978-2005. Individual weather events do not and cannot give information about the climate of the area, because weather is short term and climate is long term. People (even, unfortunately, some in the scientific community) often use the terms interchangeably, and in discussions of climate change, this carelessness with words provides a disservice.

A particularly warm or cold week in your hometown does not mean that climate change is or is not happening. It means that the weather that week was anomalously warm or anomalously cool compared to the long-term climatological average. And all averages also have a variability associated with them. We’ll go back to the AMS Glossary, in which climate variability “denotes deviations of climate statistics over a given period of time (e.g., a month, season, or year) from the long-term climate statistics relating to the corresponding calendar interval.” Variability is an inherent characteristic of the climate system: we know that even on average, no month or year is likely to behave exactly like the previous month or year.

Climate change, on the other hand, is “a significant change in the climatic state of a locale or large area, typically evident with a significant change in the mean (or average) values of a weather element.” A cold week or large precipitation event does not indicate climate change: we know from the definitions above that those are weather events. However, if the average temperature for July is significantly warmer than the average for all previous Julys on record, and this pattern happens for say three (or eight, or fifteen) Julys in a row, then by the definition what has been observed is a *change* in climate.

Most often, scientists refer to climate change on a global scale. But people care most about their locality, so here are temperature records for two continental U.S. locations. On the first figure, the temperature data themselves are plotted. The second figure shows the anomalies from the long-term average, along with global temperature anomalies and linear fits to both. Do the plots correspond to weather or climate? Do you see climate variability? What about climate change?

Minneapolis St Paul temperature record
Click image to view original data plot. Source: C. Fisk; Minnesota Climatology Working Group

North Carolina, globe temperature trends
Click image to view original data plot and summary. Source: State Climate Office of North Carolina

Gluttons for Our Doom

There are so many topics I could share with you, but somehow all of them seem depressing to me. Like possibly irreversible ‘dead zones’ in the Pacific Ocean. Instead, in honor of the remaining seven weeks in this year’s largely quiet Atlantic hurricane season, let’s revisit Gilchrist, Texas, on the Bolivar Peninsula.

Gilchrist, Texas, was built on the narrowest part of a peninsula that at its highest point is only 10 feet above sea level. In 2008, Hurricane Ike brought winds of over 110 mph coupled with a 14-foot storm surge and waves topping 20 feet. The storm knocked 99 and 1/2% of the town’s 1000 buildings off their foundations and left virtually no surviving infrastructure in the community – electrical and water systems, bridges and roads, everything, needed to be reconstructed.

It’s not a location that is alone. Take a look at these statistics: in recent years, $11 or 12 billion dollars in damage from a single storm has become commonplace. Hurricane Katrina resulted in $100 billion in uninsured losses, cut U.S. economic growth by a full 1/2 percent, and by 2008 had required U.S. government spending of more than $200 billion.

Compare these billion dollar losses with the estimated $25 – 37.5 million per year in insurance premiums nationwide and you’ll get an idea of why these storms cost taxpayers all across the country. When Andrew destroyed 60,000 homes in Florida in 1992, it bankrupted 11 local insurance companies.

Hurricanes happen. And about 35 million people live along the coastline from North Carolina to Texas, the region that is most likely to be impacted by hurricanes. At least some of these millions of people live in areas that are just as or even more vulnerable than Gilchrist. It’s now a year since that town was mostly washed away for the second time in three years, and currently, Gilchrist, Texas, is being rebuilt.

It’s simple, really: We Americans seem to be bad at being told what to do, but we’re perhaps even worse at being told what not to do. People are going to continue to live in coastal areas for a variety of reasons, and even suggesting that perhaps some areas should not be built upon is likely to provoke the masses. Still, perhaps the provoking will lead to discussion, and ultimately an informed dialog, about locations, building codes, and vulnerability to nature. However we view the fate of Gilchrist, it’s a vivid example of the importance of understanding how our natural environment can influence our lives and livelihoods. In education, it’s called a teachable moment.