Dynamic Planet Earth

earthquakes-by-magnitude-since-1898

Earth’s massive shifting tectonic plates are visible in this gorgeous diagram of our planet showing the location, intensity and frequency of earthquakes since 1898. The brighter the fluorescent green, the more seismically active the location. The Pacific plate, smack bang in the centre of this map, certainly prefers its martinis shaken and not stirred, with some of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history originating along its western boundary.

For more mind blowing maps that give you a real perspective on our planet, check out the following post on The Mind Unleashed

Virus Apocalypse

It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Sneezes

Ebola virus outbreak

There is little else on this Earth quite as chilling as hearing that there has been an outbreak of the Ebola virus. It brings crashing to mind all of those terrifying movies depicting a world ravaged by a fierce virus for which there is no vaccination, no cure and a meagre chance of survival. In recent months, however, the horror of Hollywood imagination has made its real life debut in a handful of countries in West Africa and this appearance by one of the world’s worst viruses known to man has left the local population shattered and terrified.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), we are facing the worst outbreak in recorded history and the death toll increases daily. With this shocking realisation in mind come many questions: what is the Ebola virus? How at risk is the rest of the world to contracting this pathogen and what actually happens to the body once it’s infected? Let’s take a look at the microscopic douche bag that has effortlessly, in as little as a few short weeks, shown up mankind for its frailty.

Now Might be the Time to Cancel that Trip to West Africa

Ebola virus outbreak map

If you have impending travel plans for Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea and Liberia, now might be the time to reconsider. Your journey of a lifetime might just become your last. At the last count, WHO reported that 1,711 people had been diagnosed with the Ebola virus in these countries, with 932 having succumbed to it. A 60% death rate might not seem like the apocalyptic scenario you’d associate with an end-of-the-world type virus… that is, until you put yourself in the worn sandals of some poor West African soul. Imagine your doctor telling you that your chance of surviving your illness is 40%! I’d give up all vestiges of civilized behaviour and kill myself with red wine and tequila before that miserable virus could have a chance to get hold of my internal organs.

If you think 60% is bad, however, consider the fact that the death rate of the Zaire Ebolavirus has been as high as 90% in the past:

  • 71% in 2007: 187 people dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 90% in 2003: 128 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 75% in 2001-2002: 44 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • 88% in 1976: 280 people dead in Democratic Republic of Congo

I don’t care how democratic it is, I’m SO removing Congo from my travel plans!

So, while it might sound completely ridiculous to say this: the people in the affected areas are at least a little lucky in some glass-half-full kind of way. I do understand this is hard to appreciate when you are bleeding out your bum.

This brings us to the profile of a pathogen so nasty and malicious, it would have had a glittering career in Hitler’s SS.

Profile of a Serial Killer

Ebola virus outbreak

The Ebola virus under the microscope

The Ebola virus belongs to a nasty, sadistic family of pathogens called the Flioviridae that essentially cause the body to haemorrhage uncontrollably – that is, to bleed internally and externally and all-aroundernally. There are five different species of Ebola virus, because for some God-forsaken reason one isn’t enough. They are:

  1. Zaire Ebolavirus (EBOV)
  2. Sudan Ebolavirus (SUDV)
  3. Bundibugyo Ebolavirus (BDBV)
  4. Reston Ebolavirus (RESTV)
  5. Taï Forest Ebolavirus (TAFV)

Historically, the three problematic strains of this virus have been the Bundibugyo, the Sudan and the Zaire ebolavirus, the latter of which is currently wreaking havoc in West Africa. The other two species are, interestingly enough, not typically associated with large outbreaks. In fact, RESTV in particular hasn’t been known to kill anyone ever. Amateur.

A Little Aside: The Ebola virus was named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was here in 1976 that the first recorded outbreak occurred.

How Is Ebola Transmitted?

tissue-paper-blowing-nose-nose-sneezing-boxYou catch Ebola by somehow ingesting the bodily fluids of an infected person. This, given the virus’ tendency to cause flu-like symptoms, uncontrollable diarrhoea and vomiting, is mighty difficult to avoid, especially if you are living in close proximity to the sick person. And this is precisely why the virus tends to spread so quickly amongst family members and to the medical physicians who are trying to treat these patients. Given the lack of proper, sterile medical infrastructure in these poor West African countries and the strange burial ceremonies honoured there (involving kissing and touching the corpses of loved ones passed), this virus is having an utter field day.

Thankfully, in the midst of all the carnage, there’s the fact that the Ebola virus isn’t airborne. That means you can’t get it from breathing in the same air as someone who is infected, so don’t scream “zombie apocalypse!” the next time some stranger on the subway sneezes. Just keep your mouth close and wash your hands regularly.

Symptoms and Signs Your Wife Might Be Cashing In Your life Insurance Policy Soon

Biohazard signOnce infected, it could take you as little as a few days or as long as three weeks to start showing symptoms. You’ll feel like crap and probably think you have some kind of flu with symptoms that include achy muscles, a monster headache, fever and a sore throat. Meanwhile beneath the surface of your skin all hell is breaking loose…

Ebola takes up residence inside your body’s cells where it begins its merry task of replicating. Once one has become two, they erupt out of their host cell, completely destroying it in the process, like pregnancy does to a woman’s figure. This tiny asshole then starts secreting a kind of protein known as “ebolavirus glycoprotein,” which coats the interior walls of your blood vessels, disintegrating them and leaving them more leaky than a submarine with air vents.

Ebola also impedes your blood’s ability to clot, so you essentially become haemophilic… unable to stop bleeding. One sneeze can initially cause your nose to erupt in a crimson plume of infection, while an accidental bump could leave you looking like you escaped a marriage with Mike Tyson. Eventually, if you survive long enough to experience the next merry phase in the illness, your blood will start to seep out of your blood vessels in a whole-body internal and external haemorrhage. That’s right. You’ll have blood seeping out of your eyes, nose, gums, ears and other unmentionable bodily orifices.

Next few stops on the Ebola train: shock, disseminated intravascular coagulation, coma and then death.

It’s utterly terrifying.

Where Are Your White Blood Cells When You Need Them?

White blood cellsThe reason the Ebola virus has such a high death rate is because it is as keen a master of offence as it is of defence. It actually prevents your white blood cells from “hearing” your body’s natural defence alarm. So while the virus completely destroys your body, your white blood cells – the dudes responsible for protecting your body – are just hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and hitting on platelets. But wait, it gets worse (or more hilarious depending on how morbid your sense of humour is): the Ebola virus remains so undetected by your immune system that it will actually hitch a ride on your white blood cells to other parts of the body. This explains its rapid spread to all of the body’s major organs and systems.

Sweet Jesus, tell me there’s something modern medicine can do to treat it!

Unfortunately, no. There is no cure and no vaccine for the Ebola virus. In fact, scientists are only now beginning to understand how it works, spreads and wreaks so much havoc on the body. I can imagine that the response from lab technicians willing to do the necessary research on live virus specimens must be underwhelming.

I know I’d bunk work that day.

Homer Simpson

Woohoo!

The only thing doctors can do for Ebola virus patients is to treat them for pain, fever and dehydration and keep them comfortable. It’s up to your body to do the rest, which is why it’s the strong who typically survive this virus.

Where Did the Ebola Virus COME From?

Ebola fruit bats outbreak

There is a very important field of specialty dedicated to understanding the origin and spread of harmful pathogens and it’s called “epidemiology.” By pinpointing the origin of a particular virus, we can understand HOW it spreads and therefore how to minimize this spread. It is also possible to infer from the point of origin the necessary clues to develop a treatment or vaccine.

In the case of the Ebola virus, the origin is believed to be fruit bats of the family Pteropodidae and genera Myonycteris torquata, Epomops franqueti and Hypsignathus monstrosus. What causes such devastation to us humans bumbles around quite harmlessly within the living tissues of these rodent aviators. The actual transmission of the virus occurs when someone gets the bright idea to have a bat barbecue or sandwich.

Unfortunately, bats are quite popular on the menu in West Africa.

Ebola fruit bats outbreak

How could you eat that face?

The Ebola virus has also been documented in monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees and even certain antelope. The problem here is that uneducated people from the villages in these remote areas have no idea of the danger they put themselves in when they come across a dead animal in the forest. They don’t see the harm in prodding it, eating it, or bringing it home with them for whatever reason. They have no idea that swimming around within the coagulating vessels of this deceased creature is a deadly virus that could lay complete waste to their village in a matter of weeks.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Ebola virus outbreak

When diagnosing the Ebola virus, doctors are instructed to first rule out a host of other potentially fatal illnesses, including the PLAGUE. You know a sickness is really bad when it could be confused with the plague for crying out loud! And bad the Ebola virus is. To date and at the time of writing, more than 1,700 people have become infected in the recent outbreak in West Africa and the death toll stands at over 930.

The take-home message of this particular blog on the Ebola virus could pertain to any lethal virus, I suppose. While there are things we can do to help patients fight off infection and emerge victorious (with one hell of a story to tell the grandchildren), we have to be fully cognisant of the irony that something so small – something invisible – could utterly destroy one of the most successful species on the planet. All we can do is hope that a virus similar in action to the Ebola, but deadlier and more uncontrollable in its spread never, ever makes it out of some dark recess of our planet.

So, kids, wash your hands before you eat and no matter how tempted you are to try new things, never order bat off the menu.

bat-sandwich

 

Ode To Wine

Drinking wine and wine makingI used to think I knew a fair bit about wine. Lord knows I consume enough of the stuff to have a PhD in wine drinking, but unfortunately that’s not a real qualification and if it was, the job market would be so saturated I wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of employment.

I did serve time in an Italian restaurant while studying, so I learned about the different kinds of wine, the cultivars of grapes used to make wine and how to pair them up with food. I also built a wine rack with the help of my father, which now serves as a particularly ugly bookshelf. Around the same time, I bought myself a John Platter guide, which provides a comprehensive list of all the South African wineries along with a description and rating of their annual repertoires. A one star wine is good to poach your pears in, but a five-star wine is a sure-fire way to impress the in-laws.

And so, you see, the wine rack (perpetually empty), the restaurant education, the dedication to wine drinking and the John Platter guide really imbued me with the sense of wine wisdom. That is, until I started reading up about wine making. You would never guess just how intricate the process involved is and the degree of fine chemistry that goes into making a good glass of vino. It’s all about balancing acids, exploiting the biology of fungus and harnessing the power of organic chemistry.

And so, I decided to write a blog about the magical science that brings us wine! Why? Because shut up!

No one ever needed a reason to talk about wine.

How to Make Alcohol (You’re Welcome)

Beautiful-Wine-CellarsThere are two extremely good reasons why prison guards are constantly busting inmates for bootlegging liquor. (1) After a day dodging molestation and staring at whitewashed brick walls, alcohol must seem like the elixir of the Gods, and (2) alcohol is ridiculously easy to make. It’s a simple one-liner chemistry equation that requires ingredients you could find in even the most basic of kitchens: Sugar, water and yeast.

Yeast is a tiny, tiny fungus that uses sugar, also known as glucose, to grow. It’s what we use to make breads rise and it’s what is needed to make alcohol. Mother nature is awesome. By throwing the right measure of yeast into a vat of sugar water, you provide this fungus with the ingredients it needs to survive. It eats the glucose, farts out carbon dioxide and produces alcohol as a by-product according the following chemical equation:

C6H12O6 –> 2 CO2 + 2C2H5OH

In English:

Glucose –> Carbon Dioxide + Alcohol

French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur was the one who discovered that adding yeast to sugar and water yielded alcohol and this lead to the conception of the field of fermentation, which actually has a name: zymology. The same man who brought us pasteurized milk also discovered that the acidity of a sugar solution could affect the speed with which the yeast metabolises sugar. This is an important concern of winemakers because grapes naturally contain acid and if the solution thrown into the vats at the end of the day is too acidic or too alkaline, the yeast won’t ferment optimally. The result is that it can end up affecting the taste of the wine considerably.

It could mean the difference between Pinot and piss.

What’s in a Grape?

obese-guyGrapes may seem small, oval and innocent, but they’re packed with all sorts of stuff that winemakers take a very great interest in. And rightly so, because even though a good wine may have a bouquet of (smell like) citrus, guava, green peppers, passion fruit, a crisp spring morning and the possibility of a good rodgering, there’s only one fruit that goes into its making and that’s grapes, which contain more than just sugar and water:

  • Water
  • Sugar (glucose and fructose)
  • Two main acids: tartaric and malic acid
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin A
  • 20 Different amino acids
  • Potassium,
  • Esters (sweet-smelling hydrocarbons)

The exact time of year the grapes are harvested is extremely important, because the older they get, the sweeter they become, very much unlike your cantankerous grandfather. Grapes that are overripe contain a lot of sugar, which is why “late harvest” wines are sweet and taste like raisins. Grapes that aren’t ripe enough don’t contain enough sugar and you will know this if you’ve ever innocently plucked an unripe grape off the vine. They cause your mouth to implode.

Sour grapes sour faceTHEN of course there are the different kinds of grapes to consider. Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sémillon, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Moscato and Pinot Grigio are all cultivars (kinds) of grapes that are used to make white wines. Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Malbec, Barbera, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are all cultivars of grapes that are used to make red wines.

What determines the taste and colour characteristics of the kinds of wines produced from these cultivars is the size of the grape, the thickness of the skin and the flesh-to-skin ratio of the grape. The skin is the source of all the chemicals that make a wine heavy, full-bodied and dry, so the thicker the skin and the smaller the flesh-to-skin ratio of the grape, the more complex, full-bodied and drier the wine will be, such as the Cabernet wines. Large grapes with thin skins therefore yield wines that are fruitier and light to medium bodied, such as Merlot.

wine-grapes vineyard

SO how do these delectable varieties of grapes get from the vine and into your face after a really crap day in the office?

Wine in the Making

Drinking wine and wine making

Grapes are plucked off their gnarled vines and are delivered to the cellars where all the leaves, stems, rotten grapes and unlucky caterpillars are removed. It is here that the sorting procedures begin that will determine what kind of wine these valiant grapes are destined to become.

White wines are made from the grape juice alone, so these grapes will have their skins removed after crushing. Red wines are made from the juice AND the skin, so they get to keep their clothes on. The grapes are crushed and the resultant sludgy, lumpy grape goo is pumped into shallow fermentation vats. Here, in the case of red wine, this purple porridge is stirred up and constantly agitated to prevent bacteria from establishing a foothold on the floating grape skins like tiny little Rose DeWitt Bukaters on tiny little grape skin doors in the middle of a vast purple Atlantic Ocean.

Rose And The Oversized Titanic Door Could Jack Have Fit-59915

Just saying… they COULD have made it work.

Yeast can be added to aid in the fermentation process, during which time the mixture will become increasingly alcoholic and less and less sweet as all that glucose is metabolised by the yeast. The mixture is also stirred up to encourage oxygenation of the mixture, since yeast needs oxygen to live.

By the way, never EVER search the word “yeast” in Google Images. Some things cannot be unseen.

Once fermentation is completed to the desired extent by the winemaker, in other words the right level of alcohol content, sweetness and balance of flavour has been achieved, the sludge will be run through a series of machines that will press out the skins and other flotsam and jetsam so that the remaining mixture is juicy juice. This is then transferred to either wood, usually oak, or steel barrels, depending on the precise taste characteristics the winemaker is trying to achieve.

Wooded or Unwooded?

Drinking wine and wine making

Whoops! How did I get in that picture?

Wine that is matured in wooden barrels tends to have a – SURPRISE – woody flavour. It gives it an aged, earthy characteristic that is most pleasant in a headier Chardonnay or Shiraz. And, of course, the age of the wood itself can influence the outcome of the wine. Flavours can also be added to the maturing wine by literally tossing planks of fire-roasted wood into the vat. This tends to result in the rich, coffee and chocolate-like flavours that have become so immensely popular in our red wines here in South Africa.

Throughout maturation, the winemaker will regularly sample the wine to ensure that it is on the right track to securing him a beautiful, expensive white or a quaffable supermarket red, or vice versa. Finally, after a maturation period of six months to three years, the wine will be carefully filtered, bottled, sent to market and purchased by people like me. It is then poured down our gullet, taking a detour to our brain along the way where it grossly affects our judgement. This ends the grand process of winemaking in some serious regrets and the morning after wrath of grapes.

wine and wine drinkingClass Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Winemaking may sound like one of those professions you’d be LUCKY to have, like professional surfing or being a judge on Masterchef, but there is a huge amount of pressure involved. It takes an intimate knowledge of organic chemistry and a fine palate to achieve wines that people (notably obnoxiously wealthy people) consider worthy of their Coq au vin or Bœuf bourguignon. What’s more, you only have one harvest every year to get it right, so unless you are a trust fund baby with unlimited cash at your disposal, you simply cannot afford to bugger around.

Think about this the next time you sip on a smooth Merlot, an aged Syrah or oaked Chardonnay. And think about all the billions of fungi that had to die to deliver to you a succulent Sauvignon Blanc or a tenacious Tempranillo. Appreciate the chemistry and toil that goes into the libation you so enjoy after a day of work, or a day of anything really.

Now go forth and drink wine! If it was good for Jesus, it’s good for you!

Jesus makes wine from water

How to Bake a Diamond

Thea Beckman:

I wrote this particular piece on diamonds close to the beginning of my blogging career. It’s been two years since I started, so it deserves to be disinterred from the coffers of Why? Because Science and get some air!

Originally posted on Why? Because Science.:

Diamonds have been getting men out of trouble for hundreds of years. They have also been getting men into trouble for hundreds of years. So, what’s so special about diamonds? They’re really pretty. They’re really strong. They have a great pair of tits.

Sorry, that’s Lara Croft.

DIAMONDS are really pretty, they’re really strong and they’re really RARE. They are also the gemstone of choice when it comes to getting hitched because, just like Shirley Bassey sang, diamonds are forever.

Diamonds are Forever… No, Really! They Are!

Aside from their unparalleled resilience and durability, diamonds are spectacular-looking rock minerals. Cut into a complex and intricate array of facets and planes, their refractive light properties send out a kaleidoscope of colour which spans the visible light spectrum, even though the gem itself appears totally translucent and colourless.

What are diamonds? What are they made of? How are they formed?

Yeah, yeah……

View original 1,008 more words

Climate Change: A World Finally Warming Up To The Idea, PART 2

polar bear climate change global warming

Welcome to the second installment of this two-part series on climate change, Climate Change™, global warming and the many degrees of human idiocy that have generally resulted in a cluster you-know-what of misunderstanding on both sides of the debate. It’s the aim of this blog to discuss just why it is climatologists believe human activity (particularly our industrial activity) has and is causing global weather patterns and characteristics to change. In Part 1, we set the scene and provided the context for our debate by defining some key concepts in atmospheric science. If you haven’t read Part 1, SHAME ON YOU! All the same, here’s what you need to know all wrapped up like a delicious lightly toasted and seasoned McDonald’s McMuffin McMeal.

McDiabetes.

Important Terminology from Part 1

extreme-weather-climate-link-1-sandy

Union Beach, New Jersey: The devastation left behind by hurricane Sandy in November 2012. Source: News.discovery.com/earth/weather-extreme-events/

Weather: The day-to-day expression of the atmosphere as it is experienced on the ground. Look outside your window: is it raining today? It is sunny? Are you and your dog Toto en route to Oz on a twister? That’s what weather is.

Climate: The average weather characteristics of a region over a minimum period of 30 years. If it’s summer where you are, what weather do you expect to see outside your window? Do you expect it to be rainy because you live in the tropics and during summer it pisses down every afternoon? Do you expect it to be sunny because you live in southern California and southern Californian summers are like totally freakin’ awesome, hashtag #beach, like, yesterday, like oh my gaad! OR do you expect to be hitching a lift to Oz on a twister because you live in Oklahoma, which is a veritable super highway for summertime tornadoes?

THAT, my friend, is climate.

Climate change: A significant and lasting shift in average global weather and global weather patterns, which can take place over a time period of decades to thousands of years. It can be caused by all sorts of things, from variations in solar energy and plate tectonic activity to volcanic eruptions and meteorite strikes.

Climate Change: Significant and global scale changes in climate, weather patterns and characteristics caused by anthropogenic (human-originated) emissions of greenhouse gases. In other words, the stuff the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” was about.

Greenhouse gases: The atmospheric gases that absorb the thermal energy emitted by the sun and in doing so, contribute enormously to the warming of the lower atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, sulphur dioxide, ozone and nitrous oxide.

Great, now that you’re up to speed, let’s try to answer the following question…

Why Have We Buggered Things Up So Enormously?

Environmental destruction

Alberta Canada: Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine. Not the kind of scenery you’d expect on summer holiday. Photo by Peter Essick for National Geographic.

The logic is simple. Greenhouse gases cause the warming of the lower atmosphere and because of this, they are very important to life on Earth. But, as it was mentioned in Part 1, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. The persistent melting of Earth’s major ice sheets is direct evidence of the continued warming of Earth’s atmosphere.

arctic sea ice loss global warming

The loss of polar sea ice since 1980 according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). All of these model images show the size of the northern ice cap at the same time of the year. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a very real possibility that the Arctic summer will be completely free of ice by 2100.

Since the industrial revolution, when we discovered how to harness the energy released by burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels, the concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur dioxide and other key greenhouse gases contained by our atmosphere have increased significantly. As each new discovery and development lead to the conception of newer and more sophisticated technologies, our output of greenhouse gases increased. Cars were once considered a luxury. Now, even beggars own Audis (true story; happened to me in Bahrain) and it’s not uncommon for the rich and famous to own more motor vehicles than they do teeth made from natural dental enamel and not gold.

The result of all the cars, industries, factories, refineries and other man-made technologies that require oil, coal, gas or petroleum is that we are relentlessly pumping out gases that are the by-products of burning fossil fuels. What I don’t understand is how anyone might expect this to NOT have an impact on our atmosphere and on its temperature characteristics.

Don’t The Forests And The Oceans Absorb CO2?

Environmental-Problems-Rainforest-Destruction

Active destruction of amazon rainforest to make space for the grazing of livestock

Yes! Plants, trees and other green things absorb CO2 at night, which definitely relieves the atmosphere of its burden of greenhouse gases. But look what we’ve done to them! What used to be verdant rainforest are now leveled, muddied and trampled pasturelands for cows. What used to be thriving woodland is now choked up with concrete, tar, brick and glass. There is only so much CO2 our dwindling green spaces can soak up.

What about the oceans? While they remain a massive sink (sponge, in layman’s terms) for CO2, the absorption of this greenhouse gas isn’t going without consequence. When you mix water and carbon dioxide, you get a weak acid called carbonic acid (H2CO3). And so, slowly, the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic. This is having a devastating effect upon the myriad of creatures whose shells are made out of calciferous compounds, from the beautiful coral reefs and their crusty citizens to Ariel the Little Mermaid, who will soon be swimming around topless without her bivalve bra.

Ariel the little mermaid

The more greenhouse gases you pump into the atmosphere, the more enhanced their effect will be. What is their effect? Warming, in theory.

Natural Variability Versus Anthropogenic Climate Change

The most infuriating argument put forward by people who don’t believe that mankind is having any kind of affect on our climate is that any evident changes can be attributed to the natural variability of our climate system. While it is true that Earth’s climate has undergone some dramatic shifts in the past – the premise for the movie Ice Age wasn’t thumb-sucked – these changes occurred over a time period of many thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. Natural variability typically takes a very long time to happen and the effects brought about by events, such as volcanic activity and meteorite impacts tend to be localized.

What we know is that global temperatures have changed at an unprecedented rate and that this change began around the time of the Industrial Revolution, which was only a few hundred years ago. Not a few thousand. In other words, the rate of change of global temperatures is unprecedented and there is a clear connection with the increased anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, like CO2.

In even plainer, perhaps somewhat vulgar English:

Denying climate change is like pooping in the toilet and denying the presence of a turd.

How Do We Know All of This?

Ice core drilling Greenland

Ice core drilling in Greenland

Studying present and recent past climate has been made easier through the use of satellites, our vast array of ground weather stations and weather buoys. We have also developed the sophisticated computer software and modeling programs necessary to collate all of this data and provide us with a visual picture of climate, both past and present. But our historical records only date back a few decades, after which they become a little iffy to say the least. An appreciation of scientific rigor is something that was only cultivated towards the latter half of the 20th Century. So how do we know enough about historic climate to say anything about what’s normal versus what isn’t?

The answer lies in super deep deposits of ice, as one finds at the northern and southern poles, as well as borehole temperature profiles, deep layers of sedimentation and middens, which are accumulations of animal crap, urine, bones and shells in natural catchment areas. All of these and more reveal secrets about Earth’s history and in particular, the environment and the composition of the atmosphere at the time. By examining deep ice cores extracted from super-thick ice sheets at the poles, we are provided with a perfectly preserved timeline of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content (and other gases).

What we can tell from these sources is that natural variability is normal, but it happens slowly and that recent changes in atmospheric composition are happening at an unprecedented rate and are likely attributed to mankind.

If You Don’t Believe Me, Ask the IPCC

Intergovernmental panel on climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a global effort by climate scientists to present to the world and to world governments a robust and thoroughly researched report on global climate change driven by humankind. It’s essentially a document that is aimed at helping governments around the world understand and prepare their countries for the changes in weather patterns and characteristics that are anticipated as a consequence of climate change.

The opening paragraph reads:

“Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis” presents clear and robust conclusions in the global assessment of climate change science – not the least of which is that the science now shows with 95% certainty that human activity is the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th Century. The report confirms that warming in the climate system is unequivocal, with many of the observed changes unprecedented over decades to millennia: warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, diminishing snow and ice, rising sea levels and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. Each of the last three decades has been successfully warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.”

You can read this and the rest of the report by clicking on This Link.

If You Don’t Believe the IPCC, Use Your Noodle

baby thinking hard

Anyone who has lived in a big to moderately sized city will know from personal experience that the climate in the city is typically different to the climate in the countryside. It’s hotter in the city during the day and it’s colder in the countryside at night. Generally speaking.

This is no accident… the type of land cover (vegetation versus concrete) influences how thermal energy from the sun is absorbed or reflected and this, in turn, has a great influence on average temperatures and temperature variation. The greater levels of pollution above a city also influence the temperature characteristics of the air. In fact, the greater number of small particles of dust, smoke and other pollutants in the air above cities can even cause clouds to form more readily, because these tiny particles offer water vapor a tantalizing surface around which they can condense.

None of this is a statistical projection spat out by some computer model and it isn’t the musings of some climate scientist pushing for government funding. It’s sound, solid fact and the kind of stuff you get taught in High School geography. THIS IS ANTHROPOGENIC CLIMATE CHANGE! Change brought about by human kind. It may be localized around major cities, but it is still noticeable to our skin and it is still change. The altering of the atmosphere’s temperature characteristics around our cities paints an irrefutable picture of how humans have changed climate.

Climate change on a global scale may be driven by different and/or more complex mechanisms, but to say that it is a natural, normal process that has nothing to do with our activity on this planet I find to be ridiculously ignorant. Tell me, do you enjoy sand in your ears? I think it’s dangerously erroneous to assert that we have not had an effect upon our environment, which includes the ground beneath our feet as much as it does the air above our heads… and in some people’s cases, in their heads.

George bush jr thinkingClass Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Over the many decades since the Industrial Revolution, we have pumped billions of tons of carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We’ve changed tens of thousands of square kilometers of our planet’s essential land surface characteristics by leveling forests for agriculture and allowing livestock to raze grasslands to the ground. We’ve polluted water sources, wiped out thousands of different animal and plant species and pretty much made a total mess of our natural environment. We have had a definitive impact upon planet Earth and no one in his or her right mind can debate that point.

pollution global warming

It has been the aim of this two-part series is to unravel the knotted, warped information we are fed by the media and help us regular folk better understand it: to see through the sensationalist claims to the logical, underlying science. Climate change has become a media buzzword and a vastly popular issue that has been the driving point of many political campaigns in first world nations (*cough*America*cough*). It has become a passionate, political issue and as a result, sides have been created: those who believe we’ve caused our climate to change and those who don’t.

What I want you to do is to look through all the bullshit of BOTH sides of the argument and ask yourself the following question: am I surprised that our ruthless industrial activity and atmospheric pollution has caused global climate to change?

Whether you trust what the scientists say or not, you simply can’t say no. And if you do, I challenge you to tell me why.

extreme-weather-climate- global warming

Sciencey LOL of the Week

I don’t care whether it’s true or not…

Funny science and sex

Some statistics are as good for the body as they are for the brain. Remember this and you’ll graduate from the school of life cum laude.

Har har!

In other news: Keep your eyes peeled next week for the second instalment of “Climate Change: A World Warming Up To The Idea“.

Climate Change: A World Finally Warming Up To The Idea PART 1

Climate change and severe weatherBeneath the fads, the fashion, the loud headlines, media threats and intimidating claims lies a totally rational story; the bare science of a shifting environment that, once explained, is simply irrefutable. You can be skeptical about going on a blind date or about eating Indian food before said blind date, but you can’t be skeptical about the fact that humankind has and is having a definite and permanent effect on the climate of our planet. That’s naivety at its worst.

In this blog post and the next, we’ll be taking a journey through the fancy terms thrown around by the media and redefine them to yield a totally new and more scientifically accurate understanding. We’ll come to appreciate what’s normal (historically speaking) and what definitely isn’t in terms of climate variability. We’ll also take a closer look at Earth’s atmosphere in order to get a better perspective on how our relentless and ruthless industrial activities are able to cause such significant global-scale changes in weather patterns and climate.

And so, let’s begin…

Weather and Climate: The Difference Between Them And So Help Me If You Don’t Remember This!

Bart Simpson chalkboardYou know what sand is, you know what clouds are and you definitely know a week old breakfast burrito when you smell one. We know all of this because we are exposed to it just about every day (maybe not the burrito, but point made). And yet, in spite of the fact that we are directly exposed to weather and climate all the time, very few people actually know the difference between them.

That ignorance ends today!

Weather is the day-to-day expression of the atmosphere as it is experienced on the ground. It’s the warm sun beating down upon the beach, it’s the rain on your parade, it’s the tornado relocating your house and it’s the humidity causing you to sweat like George Bush Junior’s publicity team during a press conference. The weather encompasses a great variety of atmospheric parameters and they include things such as wind speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity and precipitation. All of these come together to either put a skip in your step or to totally ruin your day.

Extreme weather frozen rain

February 5th 2012: a severe storm blows in to Versoix, Switzerland, bringing with it super-cooled rain known aptly as “freezing rain”. The temperature of this precipitation is well beneath the freezing point (0°C), but because the air is beautifully clear of dust, pollution and other particulates, the water has no condensation nuclei around which a crystal lattice can form and grow. As a consequence, this water exists as a supercooled liquid rather than freezing to form snow or hail. That is, until it hit this person’s car. It then found the solid anchor it needed to which the crystal lattice could grow causing the rain to freezes instantly upon impact, thereby trapping the world in a crysallis of ice that is very reminiscent of Hans Solo becoming frozen in carbonite in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Nerd reference!

Climate, on the other hand, describes the average weather characteristics of a region over a minimum period of 30 years. Texas is hot and prone to severe thunderstorms in summer; New York is balmy and mostly clear in autumn, Cape Town is pissy and freezing cold in winter and Seattle is just pissy and freezing cold all year round. THAT’S what the climate is.

It makes my eye twitch when I hear people saying: “The climate is great today!”

Imma stab a bitch!

Orange is the new black crazy-eyes

Climate Change Lost In Translation

“Climate Change™” has become celebrity verbiage to such an extent that I felt the need to add capitalize the first letter of each word even though it’s grammatically incorrect to do so. Al Gore has used climate change so much in his political campaigning in the past that he really should have trademarked it. And so, climate change has become so easily tossed about by the media that few people truly understand what it is anymore. It’s almost as though it has become totally divorced from its original and true meaning. The consequence of this and of the sensationalism with which the media presents its information on the science of climate is that the lay man and woman will look outside their window, see an unseasonably cold, wet, hot or windy day, blame it on climate change and become convinced that the end is nigh. You can catch these people on National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers.”

Waterspout, Tampa Florida

Somewhere in Tampa, Florida… “Aw sheeet babe, ma boat’s just gon an disappeared up one o’ them water tornadas. Global warming be at it again. When the gov’ment gon feex that?”

Climate change is a complex concept because it pertains to the long-term characteristics of Earth’s atmosphere and the atmosphere is incredibly complex. It consists of several sort-of distinct layers, a multitude of parameters, countless variables and infinite outcomes based upon the precise interaction and behavior of these variables. This is why the weatherman doesn’t always get the forecast spot on: not because he or she is an idiot, but because true accuracy in that job is about as impossible as an adrenalin spike at a dentures convention.

And so, climate change is something that should be treated with great humility and reverence. Even I am reluctant to make any broad or sweeping statements with regards to climate change and I have a Masters Degree in Atmospheric Science.

Name drop!

Awesome WomenNow that we know the difference between weather and climate and can appreciate that one day of unseasonable weather doesn’t mean the apocalypse is upon us, we can FINALLY get around to discussing exactly what climate change is. We can also meet its celebrity cousin, global warming, because believe it or not these two are NOT the same thing.

What IS Climate Change?

earth clouds-from-space1Climate change is a lasting shift in average global weather patterns and characteristics. This shift is also significant enough for us, our fancy equipment and, of course, Mother Nature to notice it and it usually takes place over a time period of decades to millions of years. What causes the climate of Earth to change?

All sorts of things actually!

Climate change has, historically, been caused by factors that range from variations in solar energy and plate tectonic activity to volcanic eruptions and meteorite strikes. Any one of these can cause local climate to change over varying periods of time. For example, a particularly violent and belchy volcanic eruption can release enough gas, dust and ash into the atmosphere to create gorgeous sunsets halfway around the world and deflect sufficient sunlight to cause very slight global cooling. It might not be much and the degree of cooling may be more isolated to the regions surrounding the eruption, but it is by definition climate change.

Augustine volcano at sunsetChanges in land surface type – what covers the crusty portions of our globe – can also lead to climate change. Dark verdant forests soak up sunshine like the delinquents from Mötley Crüe soaked up Jack Daniels, whereas concrete jungles, with all their reflective shiny surfaces sends sunshine right back where it came from. This changes the heat characteristics of the land, which, in the long term, has an impact on climate. So, climate change, in the traditional sense of the word, refers to any shift in local or global climate and it is caused by a myriad of factors. Climate Change™ on the other hand is believed to be the cause of the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

Wait!! Come back!! I swear I can explain! It’s not as difficult as it sounds!

Greenhouse Gases: Baking the Lower Atmosphere Since, Like, Ever

pollution and climate changeThe word “anthropogenic” quite simply means of human origin or to be generated by human beings. So, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases would be those generated by human-related activities such as those clearly shown in the above picture.

Now what the hell are greenhouse gases?

Our atmosphere is composed predominantly of nitrogen (78,09%), oxygen (20,95%) and argon (0,93%). The remaining fraction consists of a soup of other trace gases, many of which are “greenhouse gases.” Carbon dioxide and water vapor are two super important ones; methane, sulfur dioxide, ozone and nitrous oxide are others. Molecules of these gases absorb the thermal energy emitted by the sun and they then re-radiate this energy as heat in all directions, including down upon our little heads. The effect this has upon the lower atmosphere is to warm it. This is why it’s referred to as the “greenhouse effect,” since green houses, which aren’t actually green at all, are purposefully built to achieve this same effect and in doing so provide a warmer growing environment for plants and flowers that would otherwise die from the cold.

greenhouse effect climate changeIn the absence of greenhouse gases, sunshine would pass through our atmosphere as per usual, except it would hardly be absorbed by the air at all and as a result, tits would be frozen off around the world. In fact, the greenhouse effect is a vital atmospheric process for life on Earth because without it, the average surface temperature of our planet would plummet by an approximate 30°C or 60°F. So, whatever average temperatures you’re used to in winter, knock off another 30°C or 60°F. You may as well live in Antarctica. Even midday at mid-summer in the tropics would warrant a warm sweater and a scarf. So, greenhouse gases are good! But, too much of a good thing is definitely bad, as tequila repeatedly demonstrates to me every Saturday night.

Thank God for amnesia or else I’d remember not to drink tequila every Saturday night.

drink tequila happy friday!Anthropogenic climate change is the change in global weather patterns and characteristics that have arisen as a direct result of human activity: our factories, our refineries, our agriculture, our motor vehicles and more.

Stay Tuned for Part 2

 We’re getting there! Now that we understand the terminology and the concepts behind weather, climate, climate change and the greenhouse effect, we’re finally ready to discuss anthropogenic climate change and just why the skeptics out there – the people who tell you it’s all a hoax – are full of the proverbial.

Can You Speak Whale?

Can you speak whaleThere are few people on this planet who wouldn’t be able to recognize the iconic sound of the male humpback whale warbling, fluting and booming its sexy message to all the single ladies halfway across the Atlantic Ocean basin. Jessica Simpson is one of them and I’m assuming this is the case because she can’t even tell the difference between chicken and tuna.

Whale song is unmistakable. If you haven’t been lucky enough to have heard it for yourself while scuba diving, on board a boat or doing something in the ocean, then you most certainly would have heard it played on those obnoxious commercial CD’s titled “sounds of the rain forest” or “sounds of the ocean”: the ones played on a loop in massage parlors, beauty spas or your dentist’s office. The warbling of the humpback whale has also received its fair share of air time in one of the best creative endeavors to have come out of Pixar Animation Studios: The movie Finding Nemo.

Whale song has piqued the curiosity of humans for decades and for some strange reason, we seem to find it incredibly soothing, if not completely enchanting. Is it because some distant kernel of our consciousness understands or identifies with whale song? After all, whales are mammals and closer in relation to us than most of the creatures we share terra firma with. Or is it because we are simply fascinated with how effectively and beautifully they are able to communicate with each other through a great variety of distinct melodies?

Whatever the reason, we are not the only creatures on the planet to communicate by song, so remember that the next time you think you’re being original by sending your crush a mixed tape.

Why Do Whales Sing?

Funny Whale songsThe answer to this question is multi-faceted, the biggest of these facets being for communication and for the location of food. The ocean is a dark, murky place and sharp eyesight wouldn’t do much other than help you to better examine the various bits of ocean algae and other detritus that float past your grapefruit-sized eyeball. It would be a waste of biological energy for whales to have good eyesight and Mother Nature deplores waste. It’s why subterranean cave-dwelling fish don’t have eyes at all. The book would be called 50 Shades of Black.

Smell is also not very useful, since molecules diffuse really slowly in water – way more slowly than they do in air. So, by the time a whale detected the scent of food, said food would already be dead from old age. Sharks, on the other hand, do have a good sense of smell, but this blog is about whales. Too bad.

And so, whales have developed a keen sense of hearing, as well as a fantastic set of pipes with which they pour their cetacean hearts out in an effort to communicate with other whales and to locate ill-fated morsels. Sound travels faster and more efficiently under water, which explains why knocking on the side of the bath with your head submerged under the water sounds like the approaching Tyrannosaurus Rex on Jurassic Park.

Toothed Whale and Baleen Whale Song

animal Beluga whale trio singing

Beluga whale choir

Whales belong to the order cetaceans, just like elephants are pachyderms, dogs are canines, cows are bovids and humans are idiots. There are two major sub-orders of whales and each produce different kinds of sounds. They are:

  1. The odontoceti: the toothed whales, such as Sperm whales and dolphins.
  2. The mysticeti: the baleen whales, such as the Blue, Southern Right and Humpback whale.

Let’s take a closer look at these two sub-orders and the varying sound tracks they produce:

The Odontoceti or “Toothed” Whales

funny dolphin bubbles picturesThe odontoceti could be said to be the tone-deaf rappers of the ocean; the terrestrial equivalents of which would be Kanye West or Snoop Dogg and all those other idiots who rely on Autotune to knock out a decent melody. Instead of singing, they make a series of fast clicking sounds and high squeaks, squeals and yelps. Just like your wife does when you try to sneak it in the backdoor.

I did NOT just say that.

The high frequency clicks are used primarily for echolocation. The sound waves produced by a dolphin travel through the water at great speed; approximately four times faster than in air. They then bounce off of objects, such as the ocean floor (boring), physical obstacles (avoid), fish (food) and other dolphins (I’ll shag you later) and return to the noise-making dolphin. The keen perceptions of this dolphin will tell it vital bits of information about its quarry, such as where it is, how fast it’s traveling, how big it is and in what direction it’s trying to escape.

beluga whale echolocation

A fabulous, yet simplified not-so scientific diagram illustrating echolocation at work. The odontoceti in question is a beluga whale.

Echolocation is a fundamental tool for many creatures, including dolphins and bats. And it’s exactly the same thing as sonar: you will be familiar with this if you’ve ever seen those action movies set on board a ship or submarine. The scene involves a sweating crew gathered around a console that glows an eerie green color and makes an eerie “ping-ping” sound that signifies the rapid approaching of some form of impending doom – like a giant sea creature or nuclear missile.

The odontoceti don’t only “sing” for food. They’re also fond of whistling and this is believed to be crucial for identification and communication with other whales or dolphins. At the tender age of four or five months old, in the case of bottle-nosed dolphins, every individual develops its own unique whistle; it’s very own business card, which will serve to distinguish itself from friends and family in the same pod. This can become very important in dolphin societies, which are notorious for their sexual exploits. Sometimes, dolphins even mimic each other’s whistles as a way of acknowledging each other, kind of like a signature handshake. How absolutely adorable!

The How…

Odontoceti have a structure in their heads that can be said to function very similarly to the human sinus cavity. This structure is known as “phonic lips” and toothed whales and dolphins use it to create sound by passing air through it. Just as the pitch of the sound produced by our larynx is controlled by vibrations (high frequency being high-pitched and low frequency being low-pitched), so too do the odontoceti produce sounds via vibration. These vibrations can also be controlled quite explicitly by the noise-making whale or dolphin, which explains how it is they’re able to produce distinctive patterns. Interestingly, with the exception of Sperm Whales, all odontoceti are able to produce two completely different sounds at the same time and this is because they have two sets of phonic lips.

I’ll leave the lewd joke-making up to your filthy imaginations.

The Mysticeti or Baleen Whales

humpback_whale-song2

Humpack whale

The mysticeti, on the other hand, are the Mariah Carey’s and Celine Dion’s of the aquatic universe and while you may pretend to hate these songstresses in company, we all know that DAMN those girls can SING! Also, “Sweet Lover” is one hell of a tune and “All I Want for Christmas” is the best Christmas song, like, ever.

The mysticeti, known also as the Baleen whales, possess the same biological instruments as us humans do, which may account for their prettier songs than the Kanye West’s of the ocean. They have a larynx, minus the vocal chords. They also don’t have to breathe out in order to produce sound like we do. Instead, the Baleen whales recycle the same breath of air again and again in order to produce a continuous fluid song.

Philosoraptor funny science meme

Har har

The interesting thing about all of this is that, beyond what I have explained, we appear to understand very little about how these whales physically produce sound. All we do know is what we have observed and that is that are certain repetitions and patterns present in whale song that makes it diagnostic of certain species and even individuals. You see, whale song is used very much like language and like human language and human music, their song has different dialects, themes, phrases, verses and choruses:

“Like musical notes or words in a human song, whales use about twenty syllables which include cries, chirps and yups, uttered in patterns called ‘motifs’. Two or three motifs make up a phrase, or line, and in turn, several of these make up a theme or verse. The songs are composed of several different themes and while the basic song is continuously repeated, the individual phrases can vary considerably in length, which means that each song can last nearly an hour. It was thought that each population of humpbacks had its own song, which remained constant but recent findings suggest that the whales appreciate a catchy tune and quickly adopt any new songs they hear.”

- Talking with Animals, Charlotte Uhlenbroek

So it would seem that the primary function of whale song in the baleen whales is communication, especially around that special time of year when the males get frisky. Whether this is to woo potential mates or to tell rival males to bugger off is the subject of ongoing research. I could tell you right now that it’s probably a combination of the two. Any hot-blooded male will know that where there’s an attractive girl, there are many other dudes you’ll need to convince to bugger off.

Whale Song Top 40 Global Hits

dory speaking whale2What is really cool about whale song is that all the individuals within a certain area will practically sing the same song. Like teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert, you will be hard pressed to find anyone singing a Tracy Chapman song.

Over time, however, this song slowly evolves to include new themes and these changes are picked up by all the whales in that area almost simultaneously. It’s like one long conversation and everyone is eavesdropping. How rapidly this change occurs is governed by absolutely no discernible constant. Some years, hydrophones record a fair amount of variation in whale song, while other years, one song will remain at the top of the charts for weeks and weeks on end.

Do whales sing for pleasure? While it isn’t really possible to scientifically test this notion, it is a charming thought. And wouldn’t we be arrogant to assume that we’re the only creature that sings for aesthetic reasons? I’d like to think so. So just as we might enjoy our Top 40 Hits, so too do the Baleen whales and even the odontoceti with their constant rapping, yapping, squeaking and fin-flapping.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

beluga whale singingTo put it eloquently yet concisely, whale song is “probably the most complex [of all communications] in the animal kingdom,” according to Marine biologist, Philip Clapham. Even more complex than human communication? Considering how little we have been able to figure out about whale song, it is entirely possible. And to be honest, I absolutely love the fact that Mother Nature finds all sorts of ways to remind human beings that while we may be one of the most successful species on the planet, we are not necessarily the smartest, nor are we the coolest.

Thhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeend!!

Blue whale mysticeti