Of hedgehogs and holidays

There’s nothing like a gloomy winter to generate the longing for a good weather omen. In certain cultures, February 2 has traditionally filled that role for centuries. It’s known in Christendom as Candlemas Day (formerly the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin). Sunshine on Candlemas Day has always signalled an ominous turn of events: […]

The hole in the ozone and what we’re doing about it

The ozone hole is more than a physical concept. It’s a powerful symbol of how humans can wreak damage to the planet in ways we never dreamed. Be that as it may, the risks posed by the ozone hole appear to be on the decrease, and in many ways they pale next to the dangers […]

What you can do about climate change

It’s the biggest environment challenge our world has ever faced, but that doesn’t mean global warming is insoluble. Here are a few ways you can make a difference. Calculate your carbon. Through a variety of online tools, you can determine how much carbon is produced by your daily activities — the perfect starting point for […]

Forecasts for the twenty-first century

The computer models that project global climate don’t yet have the skill to issue regional outlooks with much confidence. This means that policy-makers don’t work with forecasts per se. Instead, they evaluate ‘scenarios», examples of what could happen if things played out in a certain fashion. Researchers spin whole sets of scenarios under various assumptions: […]

Wild cards

Its human nature to look for an easy solution to global warming. One such idea involves sprinkling tons of iron filings over the ocean to stimulate the growth of plankton that would consume carbon dioxide. Another involves spraying sun-blocking particles from aircraft into the stratosphere, mimicking the temporary cooling effects of strong volcanoes. Yet such […]

The downs and ups of global warming

If scientists knew about the greenhouse effect a hundred years ago, and if it as been obvious for decades that atmospheric C02 is on the increase, why didn’t we hear alarm bells ringing sooner? To begin with, the temperature pattern of the twentieth century threw scientists off the trail. The global average rose dramatically from […]

What puts the greenhouse in gas

All molecules of greenhouse gas — ozone, carbon dioxide, water vapour and the rest — have at least three atoms. These molecules capture and absorb radiation more easily than a two-atom molecule like nitrogen or oxygen, making them the prime culprits in global warming. If the/re so effective, why don’t these molecules catch energy on […]

Muggy greenhouse

The most prevalent of our greenhouse gases is water vapour. It’s responsible for about two-thirds of the natural greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is a much more powerful absorber, however, and so a small increase in C02 can have a wider impact.The important thing about water vapour is that it’s an agent of positive feedback. As […]

The trace of atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured in parts per million above Hawaii's Mauna Loa since 1957, shows a steady climb, plus yearly rises and falls caused by Northern Hemisphere plant cycles.

The basics

One of the most deceiving aspects of climate change is the aura of controversy surrounding it. In the US, in particular, many journalists have tended to portray global wanning as an either/or proposition: either it’s warming or its not, either were to blame or we aren’t, either we know what’s going to happen or we don’t. […]

Will Europe get the big chill?

It’s not out of the question that global warming could produce cooling rather than warming across northwest Europe. This strange scenario was first proposed decades ago by geochemist Wallace Broecker, and it was the idea behind the blockbuster 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, where it played out on a cinema-convenient time scale of a […]

Making your own forecast

More than ever before, it’s feasible for a layperson to craft their own weather forecast. The raw material used by the professionals — output from computer models — is available for many parts of the world on the Internet. Anyone can put together a home weather station at reasonable cost and see how their out- […]

The verification game

When a forecaster claims to be ’80 percent accurate» what does it actually mean? A whole sub-field of meteorology, forecast verification, is devoted to this question. The guru of verification was the late US researcher Allan Murphy, who claimed a good forecast needs to have consistency, quality and value. Imagine a set of forecasts that […]

Reading between the lines

What kinds of forecasts are available out there? How solid are their claims of accuracy? What do you do when forecasts from different sources disagree? As consumers of weather information, it works to our advantage to ponder the forecasts we get and learn how to use them wisely. To paraphrase the Roman maxim caveat emptor, […]

Only a slight chance of confusion

It is as a direct result of Model Output Statistics (MOS) that the nifty forecast feature known as probabilistic precipitation outlooks exists. Statements like ‘a 70 percent chance of rain» now appear in forecasts around the globe. These were launched in the mid-1960s in the United States, where MOS was pioneered. As familiar as they […]

A preview of next year’s climate

If you can’t get next week’s weather right, how can you claim to predict anything a year in advance? It’s the difference between weather and climate that makes long-lead forecasts possible. Actual storms can’t be predicted a year out, but the longer-term features that affect climate across a season can sometimes be foretold with surprising […]

The surprise East Coast snow of 2000

The timing was almost perverse. On January 18,2000, the US National Weather Service announced that its latest supercomputer for weather and climate models was officially online. Reaching five times the speed of its predecessor, increases in forecast accuracy were all but assured. Less than a week later, a snowstorm took shape over the eastern US […]

Getting the word out

So you’re wondering if it’s going to rain tomorrow. You pick up the paper and find a weather report that’s a sea of typography. The local forecast must be bobbing around somewhere in there, but you can’t find it straight away. You hop onto the Internet and come up against a hundred different Web pages […]

So the sky says

Folklore through the ages has linked the state of the sky to the upcoming weather. The parade of cloud that often precedes a mid-latitude storm — from high, wispy cirrus and patches of cirrocumulus to lower, rain-bearing nimbus — gave birth to the maxim, ‘Mackerel scales and mare’s tails make lofty ships carry low sails.*The […]

Normally, the boundary between cool, deep Pacific water and warm surface water slopes upward from west to east across the tropics (left). During El Nino, warm water builds in the east, and tropical rainfall shifts east as well.

El Nino and La Nina

Moody, tempestuous, violent: it’s so easy to assign human qualities to El Nino and its companion, La Nina. This pair of atmospheric cycles broke into the news in the late 1990s when a remarkably strong El Nina wreaked global havoc. The pithy name fits well with headlines, and the concept — a strange, portentous warming […]

Cycles galore

Europeans who couldn’t care less about El Nino may sit up and take notice when some-body mentions the North Atlantic Oscillation. Although it’s less important on a global scale than ENSO, the NAO is a much bigger player in Europe’s climate. Unlike El Nino, it’s an atmospheric cycle that operates more or less independently of […]

The people who know El Nino best

In Spanish, El Nino means ‘the male infant» or, when capitalized, the Christ child. Peruvians began applying the term to the ocean and atmosphere more than a century ago. Navy captain Camilo Carrillo noted in 1892 that local sailors referred to a periodic warming of the Pacific, which often occurred around Christmas, as El Nino. […]

The family name

Because therms far more to El Nino than a change in the ocean, the term is now popularly used to refer not only to the oceanic warming but also to the weather changes that go along with it Ditto for La Nina. However, scientists have to be more precise than this. Some argue over which […]

Drought

Drought is one weather extreme that’s defined not by what happens but by what doesn’t happen — namely, rain. It’s as if nature forgot that it was supposed to provide a certain amount of moisture each year. The meteorological spigots are shut down, and nobody can say just when they’ll be turned on again, although […]

Floods

Most weather events descend upon us. Floods rise up to meet us from below — sometimes quietly, sometimes ferociously. They’re one of the few weather-related hazards that can be made far worse by the way we choose to live: where we pave the land, build houses, fell trees and dam rivers. And floods may be […]

Canyons and water: a dangerous combo

The lure of a slot canyon — narrow and serene, with walls that ascend far higher than the canyon’s width — is hard for a serious hiker to resist Thousands traipse into these flash-flood factories each year unaware of the risk they face. A downpour in one spot can send water pouring into a slot […]

Heat waves and cold waves

They aren’t the flashiest of villains, but hot and cold spells — when they’re sufficiently intense and prolonged — are among the deadliest of all weather events. Everyone knows that it’s risky for us warm-blooded humans to spend much time in temperatures far above or below our margins of comfort. Yet only in the past […]

Europe feels the heat

Records melted like ice cubes across Europe during the astonishing summer of 2003. Pulses of heat plagued much of the continent in June and July, but by far the worst occurred in the first two weeks of August. Many areas topped 35°C/95°F day after day, with nights often staying above 20°C/68°F. England saw its first […]

Other windstorms

“They call the wind Maria” or so a classic tune from a 1950s musical informs us. A few years earlier, the forecaster-protagonist of the 1941 novel Storm did just that (and perhaps inspired the song) by dubbing a particularly mean cyclone Maria. The fixedness of our earth’s landscape helps to shape the wind into familiar […]

You say diablo, I say sirocco

A hot wind by any other name is just as enervating. The people of Los Angeles and San Francisco put up with occasional Santa Ana and diablo winds, respectively, that funnel down the canyons flanking these cities. Southern Europeans are familiar with a torrid desert wind that blows in from the Sahara or Middle East; […]

Coastal storms

Hurricanes are the most familiar of the storms that ravage coastlines, but they aren’t necessarily the sturdiest. For all its immense power, a hurricane can be quite finicky. Should the sea surface be a touch too cool, or should a stiff wind tilt the central chimney of rising air a bit too much, the balance […]

Was it really the Perfect Storm?

Plucked from obscurity by a little-known writer, it gained fame on the best-seller lists. The coastal storm of October 31,1991, is now part of American pop culture as «The Perfect Storm» made famous by Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book and the 2000 film of the same name. But did the event really live up to its […]

Most tropical cyclones spin up just north or south of the equator (but not on it), then move toward the west before angling poleward and eastward. Above are the names by region for tropical cyclones with winds of 118kph/74mph or more.

Hurricanes and tropical cyclones

The weather was probably quite tranquil on the Caribbean island of Barbados on the night of October 9, 1780: the calm before the storm. We know what it was like the next evening, thanks to Sir George Rodney. He and his fellow British colonials cowered in the government house, watching walls a metre thick crumble […]

Size matters…or does it?

Like the people the/re named after, hurricanes vary tremendously. They’re actually little correlation between the size of a tropical cyclone and its strength. Some of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes are relatively small, and there have been numerous big, lumbering systems that packed little punch.The core of Hivrkane Andrew, which ravaged south Florida in […]

What’s in a hurricane name?

Most weather events come and go like nameless strangers, but each hurricane gets the human touch of a moniker all its own. Centuries ago, the worst hurricanes in Spanish-speaking areas were named after the saint’s day on which they occurred. A more elaborate naming tradition started with Clement Wragge, a forecaster in Australia during the […]

South America’s stray hurricane

People in Brazil aren’t used to hurricanes, to put it mildly. In fact, no hurricane had ever been reported there until 28 March 2004, when a mysterious system packing winds up to 137 km/hr (85 mph) swept onto the coast of Santa Catarina province. Forecasters from Brazil and from the US National Hurricane Centre had […]

Katrina, Rita, Wilma — and more

The degree to which climate change may be intensifying tropical cyclones across the world is a topic of spirited scientific discussion, but there’s no debating the impacts seen in recent years. Five hurricanes struck or sideswiped the United States in 2004, with four of those slapping woebegone Florida. Meanwhile, a record 10 typhoons raked Japan. […]

Tornadoes

Terrifying and mesmerizing at the same time, tornadoes have earned every inch of their fearsome reputation. They produce the strongest winds on the planet — close to 480kph/300mph. If that weren’t enough, tornadoes can be astoundingly flaky. A tornado — often informally referred to as a twister — might last only seconds or churn for upwards […]

Tornado censors of 1900

For over fifty years, the word ‘tornado’ was taboo in US weather forecasts — ironically, because of early detection success. Military meteorologist J. P. Finley took it upon himself to issue the world’s first large-scale tornado alerts in the 1880s. Using teletype reports from his own network of hundreds of observers scattered across the country, Finley […]

Tornado-proof?

Countless folk tales have proclaimed that a region is protected from twisters by certain geographic features, such as a hill or river. The people of Topeka, Kansas, assumed they were being kept safe by a rise called Burnet Mound — that is, until the US city was ravaged by a killer twister on June 8,1966. […]

Hail

Hail isn’t the most common weather hazard, but it can be one of nature’s most efficient demolition tools. Anyone who’s been caught in a hailstorm can tell you that the assault can really hurt. Hail kills an untold number of animals across the world each year and destroys many tonnes of crops. Over 200 people were […]

Sydney’s day of ice

It doesn’t snow in Sydney to speak of, but Australia’s biggest city makes up for it with occasional blizzards of hail. New Year’s Day 1947 brought one such storm, with hail-stones the size of oranges. A more recent pummelling came on the evening of April 14, 1999 — quite late in the autumn for hail […]

The great hail war

If you’re stuck in a car during a hailstorm, the racket may be enough to make you think you’re in a war zone. Indeed, humans have treated hail as if it were a living, breathing enemy. Europeans of the 1800s fired rockets and cannons at hailstorms, hoping to either deflect the storm or break its […]

Thunderstorms

It s with very good reason that lightning evolved as a symbol of divinity in both the Bible and the Koran, as well as in Greek mythology and countless other religious and secular traditions. Few natural events are as familiar yet as awe-inspiring as a thunderstorm. The best estimate is that some 2000 thunderstorms are […]

Lightning strikes again — and again

If lightning never struck more than once in the same spot, the makers of lightning rods would have a tough time of it Since that day in June 1752 when Benjamin Franklin (inventor of the lightning rod) tapped into storm electricity with a kite and a key, we’ve known why tall objects tend to attract […]

What makes a storm green

Many cloud-watchers have noticed the peculiar green tint that sometimes appears in the heart of a strong thunderstorm. A popular explanation had it that hail or ice in the storm was refracting and absorbing the light to favour green wavelengths. In the mid-1990s, a pair of scientists took a spectrophotometer to Oklahoma and Florida, hunting […]

Fog

If you’re reasonably warm and comfortable, then a thick cloak of fog can be one of the most sublime pleasures weather has to offer. Every hard edge in the landscape softens; a moist cocoon of cloud envelops both your physical and mental world, and everything around seems to shrink to a more manageable size. Fog […]

London’s killer smog

For some 300 years, coal-burning in London transformed the city’s frequent fogs into sickening smogs. The Victorian taste for dark wallpaper was in part a clever way to disguise soot, and Dickens wrote of snowflake-sized soot particles. Still, nobody anticipated the disaster of December 4-8,1952, when a smog of epic proportions settled in beneath a […]

Putting fog to work

There aren’t many deserts where the air feels soft and moist, as it does along the western fringes of Peru and Chile. Cold water that upwells along the coast keeps the air ultra-stable most of the time. Towns like Chungungo, Peru, may get less than 5cm/2in of rain a year, even as the chill ocean […]

Freezing rain and sleet

For the most part, winter ice doesn’t do much more than inconvenience people for a few hours. Worldwide, it’s far less common than snowfall, making it an unusual enough phenomenon to grab people’s attention. The shimmering beauty of an ice storm, for example, offers a gratifying encounter with the work of Mother Nature while packing […]

Montreal’s icy onslaught

The sounds were inescapable: tree limbs cracking, power lines sparking, all of them crashing to the ground in various directions. From Monday to Friday, January 5-9,1998, the zone from northern New England to the St Lawrence Valley was locked in a strange and deadly weather pattern. While sub-freezing air held firm near the ground, wave […]

Snow

Nothing can lure the fun-loving child out of a grown adult more quickly than a snowstorm. Particularly in places where it doesn’t fall very often, snow is a holiday-maker, an enforced interruption to our routine. Both kids and kids at heart fling snowballs; the more meditative among us stroll through a panorama of softened sound and […]

How to make an avalanche

The long-suffering towns of the Alps know the power of snow too well. For centuries, before control techniques were perfected, they were plagued by periodic avalanches. More than 2000 people died in 1618 when tons of snow slid into Plurs, Switzerland, and the Chiavenna Valley of Italy. Avalanches can strike anywhere there’s enough snow: disastrous […]

New York’s blizzard of the ages

For North Americans, the winter of 1887-88 was an equal opportunity offender. The Midwest’s worst snowstorm on record struck between January 12 and 14. Drifts topped 460cnV15ft and temperatures dropped as low as -47°C/-52°F. Some farmers in the Dakotas literally froze in their fields, and dozens of rural schoolchildren perished while walking home. Urbane New […]

Rain

It drizzles, it pours, it pelts. Rain falls on the just and the unjust, winners and losers alike. In some ways, rain is the planet’s great equalizer, yet rain falls anything but equally around the globe. You could spend a hundred years in the middle of the Sahara and collect less rain than an Hawaiian […]

The real shape of rain

While songwriters have long thrown teardrops and raindrops into the same lyric for emotional effect, artists often use the former to illustrate the latter. Imagine the shock of a youngster if you told them that raindrops are actually shaped more like hamburger buns than teardrops. The tiniest cloud droplets are almost perfectly spherical, but as […]

This twenty-year analysis shows the average temperature for January across the globe.

Climate zones

Nobody really experiences climate per se. You can experience weather any time just by stepping outside, but climate is the average of sun, rain, snow, wind and other elements playing out over the long haul. This makes it an abstraction, built from the fragments of weather that caress or assault us. Even so, climate is […]

If warm air rises, why is Everest so cold?

You can’t blame anyone for being confused. It’s a fact of weather life that warm air rises and cold air sinks. Yet as anyone who’s climbed a mountain knows, the air temperature usually goes down as you scale a peak. This seeming paradox has a subtle explanation. Warm air expands and cools as it rises, […]

The sunlight enters a raindrop, tiny variations in the entrance angle translate into a separation of hues as the light reflects and exits the drop. If conditions are right, the colours show up as a rainbow across the sky from the sun.

Sun, sky and colour: the optics of weather

Its a lazy summer evening by the lake. The Sun melts from its usual yellow into a blazing red as you watch it set over the water. As the bottom of the Sun noses below the horizon, the whole sphere seems to enlarge and flatten, as if somebody were stretching it against the land Finally, […]

The mysterious green flash

Jules Verne’s 1882 novel Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray) focused on a rarely seen optical phenomenon. In the last moment of sunset at sea, the remaining glimmer of sun may turn «a green which no artist could ever obtain on his palette … If there is a green in Paradise, it cannot be but […]

Castles in the air

We’re used to thinking of mirages as oases in the desert, surrounded by palm trees. In real life, our most likely encounter with a mirage is on the highway, where water may seem to shimmer in the distance. Mirages rely on a property of the atmosphere called refraction — the bending and spreading of light […]

The Shattuck Windmill Museum in Oklahoma is helping to preserve a legacy that goes back centuries.

Taking the weather’s pulse

According to rock legend Bob Dylan, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowings He’s got a point. Wet your finger, put it into the breeze, and you’ll sense the wind’s direction right away. You could do the same thing with a basic wind vane or, for that matter, with […]

How to read a weather map

There’s method in the madness of your local TV weathercaster when he/she is rambling on about curved, studded lines hanging from a little red «L». The fronts on a basic weather map were devised by Bergen School meteorologists early in the twentieth century. It took years for them to be accepted by scientists in much […]

Humidity: it’s all relative

What does ’90 percent humidity» really mean? Try thinking of water vapour as something that cohabitates with dry air; water vapour becomes more prevalent as winds bring it in or lakes and oceans evaporate more of it The warmer the dry air is, the more water vapour can coexist with it, which is where the […]

Face to face with the jet stream

Among its myriad of influences, World War II took aviation to new heights. Fighter planes regularly soared above 8km/5 miles.There they found a strange, strong wind that blew at unheard-of speeds. One Nazi spy-plane reported 170-knot winds (310kph/195mph) before it crashed in the eastern Mediterranean. In November 1944, two US squadrons approaching Tokyo from the […]

A concept worth flushing

Everyone knows that the water in a toilet bowl flows in the opposite direction if you cross the equator ~ or does it? Charlatans in equatorial countries have been using this notion for years to make a fast buck and dazzle visitors. With a tour group in tow, they carry a bowl with a drain […]

This Hawaiian tree serves as a freakish testimony to the power of ever-present trade winds.

Where does the wind go?

Wind is the flywheel of the Sun’s heat engine, the motion produced by raw solar energy as it reaches Earth. It sculpts our weather, as it forms clouds, fronts and countless other weather features out of thin air. Yet for a surprisingly long time, people didn’t quite know what to make of the wind. Classical […]

Since air absorbs and disperses sunlight, point В gets a more intense dose than A.

The Sun and Earth

Consider the total solar eclipse — a thing of undeniable beauty. When the Moon passes before the Sun, all that remains visible for a few minutes is the shimmering corona. Perhaps even more remarkable than the sheer beauty of an eclipse is its sheer improbability. The Sun is far larger than the Moon, but it’s […]

Forces behind the Northern and Southern Lights

The beautiful sky show known as aurora borealis (or australis, in the Southern Hemisphere) is, in fact, a manifestation of molecular violence. Aurorae are produced by the solar wind, a stream of charged particles from the Sun. Because Earth’s magnetic field is a very good plasma shield, the solar wind usually flows around it much […]

Layers of the atmosphere

The sky is the very definition of vastness. When we take a boat to sea or find ourselves on a treeless plain, were reminded just how all-encompassing the sky can feel. Its easy to believe the atmosphere must go on forever, stretching outward and upward. Try this perspective, though: Earth as seen from the US […]

The weight of it all

Living in it as we do our whole lives, it’s easy to forget that air is heavy stuff. All of the air that rests on top of an adult’s head (an area of about 500 square centimetres or one-half square foot) weighs roughly 400 kg, or about half a tonne! Thankfully, our bodies are up […]

Crickets and other temperature scales

Even after the thermometer was invented, it wasn’t obvious how to set its readings. Scientists bickered over which points on the scale should be tied to something in the natural world. Some favoured ‘blood heat» or body temperature. In northern Europe, where thermometers were refined in the eighteenth century, people didn’t expect air temperature to […]

Welcome to our atmosphere

An old pop song tells us that “love is like oxygen”. A politician concerned about the environment is accused of being “out in the ozone”. Computer programs that exist only in a promoters press releases are dubbed “vapourware”. Oxygen, ozone and water vapour are three of the most familiar ingredients in the life-sustaining soup we […]

The lighter side of humidity

Step off a plane in Miami or Calcutta and you may feel as if you’ve been hit by a tonne of hot, moist bricks. When air is extremely muggy, it feels thicker and heavier than usual. Actually, though, tropical air is less dense than its cold, dry counterpart when both are at the same air […]

Your great-great-great-grandparents’ cold world

Regardless of what our industrial society is doing to Earth’s climate, nature can produce surprises of its own accord. Sketchy observations and recent inferences show that, from about 1550 to 1850, a good part of the planet was as much as 1.0°C/1.8°F cooler than today. That may not sound like much, but it was enough […]

Announcer Noelle Middleton and meteorologistT H Clifton collaborated on an early BBC weathercast in 1954.

What’s weather anyway?

Sunlight peering through overcast skies. A burst of rain. Lightning that splits the heavens in two. A great gust of wind. They’re all ingredients that make up weather. Yet while the existence of weather maybe a constant, the weather itself is constantly changing. The same is true of our ideas about weather. People have always […]

Life in the Ice Age

It wasn’t exactly a bowl of cherries for the protohumans who endured the last Ice Age. When Neanderthals ranged through Europe, present-day France and Germany were barren tundra and most of the British Isles and Scandinavia were under a sheet of ice more than 1.6km/1 mile thick. Similarly, massive ice sheets ranged as far south […]

Weather vs climate

Science-fiction master Robert Heinlein once pointed out, «Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get’That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the two. Weather refers to the day-to-day vagaries of the atmosphere, the conditions that change from hour to hour and from day to day. Climate deals with the average of weather […]

The ultimate global superpower

Lets assume for a moment that the technology now coming along will allow us to get on top of climate change with only comparatively minor issues such as increased flooding and storms to cope with. If so, what might our long-term relationship with the Earth be like? Our species’ self-awareness, planning and technology are already […]

In the meantime…

Our knowledge of stellar evolution, the development of stars over time, is solid enough to make the events described above pretty definite. But the many billions of years before any of this happens contain fewer certainties. What we can say for sure, however, is that nobody will be killed or even inconvenienced when the Sun boils […]

Supernova alert

A supernova is a star which has erupted on a terrific scale. When we see one in a distant galaxy, it can outshine all the other millions of stars that the galaxy contains. Our own Sun is not massive enough to go supernova, but that does not mean we are safe from them. One could […]

Asteroid hazard

Ceres, the biggest asteroid, was discovered on the first day of the nineteenth century. It is about 1000km in diameter and since 2006 has been officially promoted to the status of Dwarf Planet. Now we know over 15,000 asteroids, and in 2006,831 of them had been classed as potential hazards. This essentially means that they […]

Seeing the future

Some thinkers have already decided that we have made such a mess of the Earth that our future lies elsewhere. They are wrong for many reasons, not least because the solution they propose is far too complex. We do not know of any other place in the universe remotely as nice for humans as this […]

Extinction

“Extinction is for ever” used to be a green movement slogan. It is no longer completely true. Thanks to the wonders of genetic engineering, it is becoming possible to recreate lost creatures provided we have their DNA. The quagga, a species of zebra whose last member died in Amsterdam Zoo in 1883, is one animal […]

Are we causing a mass extinction?

Are we really living through a mass extinction? If so, we ought to take care. The lesson of the past is that the biggest and most dominant creatures are most likely to vanish when such a mass extinction gets going, while the more modest ones keep plugging on. If humans are using up a large […]

Climate change

Climate change

Oil, coal and gas may be set to run out in the next century or so, but should we be using them in the first place? People have always known that fossil fuels present problems. Oil causes environmental damage when it leaks from pipelines or ships. Burning it produces a wide range of pollutants. The […]

Gaia theory sees the whole planet as a single organism

Gaia

Since the 1970s a group of scientists centred on James Lovelock, a British chemist specializing in changes in the atmosphere, have pushed the Gaia theory, whose message is that the Earth, far from being a jumble of interacting components, is a self-regulating system that might be regarded as a single organism. Of course, Gaia would […]

Climate change deniers

What should we do with our growing awareness that we are altering the Earth’s climate? Some think that innovation, especially in energy technology, will sort it all out, given some political will and an awareness that there is profit in it. This is more or less this author’s line, although I also think that time […]

How much are we using?

Lets start with the basic process that drives life on Earth — photosynthesis. Just how much of this process humans are making use of is controversial. As long ago as 1993, one estimate put the proportion of land plant production being used by humans at 40 percent. The jargon term here is NPP — Net […]

Life after oil

No business would take a look in its warehouse and panic because it had only forty years’supply of nails or envelopes left. Why should humans as a species behave differently when it comes to oil? The main reason is that they are not making oil, coal or gas any more. They are still being produced […]

PERCENTAGE OF URBAN POPULATION PER CONTINENT, 1950-2030

Want to save the planet? Move to the city

Although it is natural to regard cities as the most unnatural and environmentally damaging places on Earth, perhaps there are two sides to this story. Throughout history, people have voted with their feet by moving to cities. They have often faced extreme exploitation and poor living conditions to get closer to the jobs, education, crowds […]

Genetically engineered crops

As the pressure on our food supplies increases, could genetically engineered crops help food production keep pace with demand? The term genetic engineering, or biotechnology, normally means taking genes from one species and putting them into another. Almost all the plants and animals we eat have been improved by gradual breeding processes. Biotechnology allows the […]

Photosynthesis

Photosynthesis is the difference between the Earth and everywhere else we know about. From Mercury to Pluto and, so far as we know, on all the hundreds of other planets we have now discovered, sunlight — or starlight — falls on craters and mountains, clouds or ice, and is either absorbed or reflected. But on […]

The Earth and us

Many a literary metaphor contrasts the unvarying Earth with the fast-flowing fortunes of people. If you’ve read this far in the book, you’ll know that this is inaccurate. Weather systems, sea levels, ice sheets and river courses change over time, in some cases surprisingly quickly. Of course, the solid Earth is made of sterner stuff […]

Sheer weight of numbers

Try thinking quantitatively about the hold humans have on the world. There are about 400,000 African and 40,000 Asian elephants. At about seven tonnes apiece, this means that the world has 3-4 million tonnes of elephant. This is about 1 percent of the mass of humans. Throughout history, human beings have been reluctant to share […]

WORLD POPULATION

Population growth

Is it a rule of nature that the population keeps on increasing? It might seem so from the relentless graphs of world population that adorn most books on the subject, including this one. But this century’s newspapers seem to contain more headlines about a dearth of people than about a surplus. The reason is that […]

Melting glaciers

As recently as 1981 the maverick astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle published a book called Ice: The Ultimate Human Catastrophe predicting a new ice age. One possibility he considered was that an ice age might be triggered by a large meteorite impact putting enough dust into the Earths atmosphere to cause significant cooling. At the time […]

SNOWFLAKE FORMATION

How to start an ice age

The Earth’s 160,000 glaciers may be culled radically during our lives, but it is still very likely that the Earth’s long-term future contains more ice ages. If it does, the massive glaciers and ice sheets that it entails will start small, like those we see today once did, with snow crystals that fall and do […]

White gold

Despite their decline, it is worth celebrating the great glaciers of the Alps instead of mourning them. There are glaciers all along the arc of the Alps from France to Slovenia, including the Mer de Glace in France, the Stubai in Austria and dozens of smaller ones. They provide the headwaters of many big European […]

GLACIAL PERIODS IN THE PHANEROZOIC EON

Ice ages

Snowball Earth may be the only time the Earth has completely frozen over. However, there have been periods of more or less severe glaciation throughout the Earths history. There were major glaciations about 3 billion years ago (the Archaean in geological time), about 2.4 billion years ago (the Proterozoic), and about 300 million years ago […]

Ice ages and us

What have ice ages got to do with people? Quite a lot, according to current thinking among scientists. Peter Forster, an archaeologist at Cambridge University in England, points out that the successive waves in which humans have spread across the world have mainly been determined by ice ages, both in their timing and in the […]