Sunspots, Active Region 1339

By: Shane Sullivan

Sunspots are magnetic storms on the surface of the Sun which are sometimes visible from Earth as black dots on the surface of the Sun. Recently scientists observed the largest group of sunspots seen since 2005 which collectively are “approximately 17 times the width of our planet”. This group of spots has been named active region (AR) 1339 and is of particular interest to scientists because of its current orientation in relation to the Earth.

“A picture of the sunspot cluster known as AR 1339 taken with a backyard telescope”

AR 1339 is now located in the center of the Sun directly pointing towards Earth which has the potential to cause damages to satellites and humans if solar flares become active. Although, the last solar flare activity recorded from AR 1339 was on the 3rd of November flares can become active anytime and are at most detectable within minutes of the occurrence. These flares have a high potential to disrupt satellites and due to radiation exposure pose health risks to airline pilots and scientists aboard the space station.

While AR 1339 is visible to the naked eye Philip H. Scherrer, a Stanford professor, warns, like Tiho, that “people should never look directly at the sun”.

Snowtober 2011 in the Northeast

The North East and Mid-Atlantic region of the United States (from West Virginia to Maine) experienced an unseasonably early snow storm on the weekend of Halloween, October 29-30, 2011. The nor’easter brought as much as 81 inches of snow in some places and the weight of the snow on the still-attached leaves, made branches to snap more easily. The snapping of trees led to many downed power lines and a chaotic attempts by utilities personnel to restore power. Over 3 million homes lost power during this time, exceeding the number of power outages experienced in September 2011’s Hurricane Irene.

Central Park in New York City broke records – it was the only time in its history that snow accumulation exceeded 1-2 inches within the month of October. By the first morning of the storm on Saturday, October 29, 2011, Central Park had already received 2.9 inches of snow.  The storm also brought New York City closer to the “all-time wettest” year in its history,  In total, the storm gave New York City 65.75 inches of precipitation – over 2 feet above average! In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, 31.4 inches and 32 inches of snow were produced, also above average during the month of October. According to NOAA, the Northeast had 86% snow cover with approximately 4” deep. Very, very unusual.

NASA's "Image of The Day" during Snowtober 2011

One weather historian Christopher Burton has called the storm, “the most extraordinary October snowstorm in over two centuries in the northeastern US”. This unseasonable snowstorm is further proof of a warming world. With warmer temperatures, the atmosphere is able to hold more moisture and thus heavier precipitation. With temperatures falling just below freezing during late October 2011, this precipitation came down as snowfall.

Freedman, A. (2011, October 31). Historic October Northeast storm: Epic. Incredible. Downright ridiculous. Capital Weather Gang. The Washington Post. Accessed November 5, 2011

Economic Prosperity at the Environment’s Expense: Different Resource, Same Outcome?

Two Rivers: The Chance to Export Power Divides Southeast Asia

By Jeff Smith (National Geographic)- 10/25/11

River picture: A person wades in the Irrawaddy River.

Despite being two separate waterways, the Mekong and Irrawaddy Rivers are crucial to both the human and animal population that currently rely on it to survive. As China continues to grow industrially at its current rate, on a continent that is“energy hungry,” Laos and Burma are in the midst of determining the economic benefits and environmental downfalls of constructing hydropower dams on the rivers.

Hydropower dams have potentially devastating consequences for migratory fish and wetland ecology along the rivers. They redistribute water with the mindset that producing energy is the main goal. Generally speaking, dry season river flows tend to increase while the wet season peak flows tend to decrease in order to maintain the proper levels of energy production. While this would seemingly lead to a more hands on approach to flood control that is not the main priority of these dams, and thus, not a guarantee.

The risks for these projects are straightforward: besides from the obvious environmental disruption, it threatens the ecology and animal habitats it supports.  Additionally, it threatens to disrupt the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers alike who rely on its flow to support  their families and are the economic engine for small villages along the river. Contrastingly, a hydropower dam will generate potentially billions of dollars by exporting the megawatts of energy it produces to countries such as China and other neighboring countries where energy is in high demand.

Intriguingly, Laos has seemingly accepted the risks and has moved forward with construction of a dam on the Mekong River whereas in Burma, the government has ceased work on the construction of the dam in the Irrawaddy River. The Irrawaddy has significant spiritual significance for much of the Burmese population who were surprised by the government’s democratic acceptance of the public’s outcry.  Although many activist groups in Laos are fighting intensely to have the government overturn its decision to move forward with the project it is likely that both countries are still in limbo. It will be interesting to see what the near future holds.


Hopefully, we can get a conversation started about the following environmental ethics debate.

*As the world is demanding more and more energy and there is an increasing global push for alternative  forms of energy (rather than fossil fuel), is risking the ecology and habitats of these rivers a worthwhile investment environmentally speaking? Clearly the economic incentive is there, but as the fossil fuels of the world continue to decrease while simultaneously affecting our climate, is hydroelectric power a reasonable, if not, crucial alternative in the coming years?


What’s Your Pollution Scorecard?

Coal-fired power plantDespite the success of national legislation like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, pollutants still enter the environment at alarming rates. We can easily identify obvious sources of pollution—sulfur dioxide is bound to be coming out of a coal-fired power plant’s smokestacks—yet often less-obvious sources go unnoticed.

When pollution from any of these sources enters the environment, the substance likely enters either the air, local ground or surface water, or the soil; some of these substances may remain in these locations for many years. These chemicals have obvious effects: human and environmental health suffer in a variety of ways.

Nevertheless, the landscape of the region and the physical distance from a polluter means that some locations will experience only minimal levels of a pollutant. Wind and other weather patterns could transport a pollutant away from region and toward another; a city-dweller living next door to a factory will inhale many more toxic chemicals than will a rural farmer living kilometers away.

Luckily (or not, depending on your perspective) there is an online tool to determine which polluters exist in your locality. By visiting Scorecard, you can input your home or current zip code and get a list of polluters in your locality, the location of those polluters, how much pollutant they emit, and which pollutants are most prevalent where you live. For instance, I learned a company was emitting lead-based compounds from what I thought was an office building adjacent to the suburban neighborhood where I grew up! You can also see if any Superfund sites exist near you, determine the cleanliness of your local water, and learn what percentage of homes in your area have risk for hazardous levels of lead.

How many polluters are in your locality? Are you surprised at what you find out? Let us know in the comments!

Bill Nye the Science Guy on Climate Change

by Amanda Doyle

He taught us the physics behind flight, mechanisms in an eyeball, and layers of the atmosphere (all accompanied by pop music parodies), but now, Bill Nye the Science Guy tackles a much more difficult issue… climate change.  An advocate himself, Bill makes frequent appearances at universities and conventions, and on news broadcasts addressing this modern concern.  In February 2010, soon after a blizzard crippled Washington D.C.,  Bill spoke on MSNBC as a guest of Rachel Maddow.  Many disbelieving politicians utilized the blizzard to debunk the theory of global warming; however, Bill explained that climate change may have been the driving force that created the catastrophic storm.  Accustomed to educating an elementary audience Bill provided a clear and concise explanation of climate change, one both students and elders alike could understand and appreciate.

Bill Nye Science Guy on Rachel Maddow Talking About Climate Change
msnbc, “Bill Nye Science Guy on Rachel Maddow Talking About Climate Change,” Youtube video, (accessed October 1,2011).

First, Bill clarifies that global warming was the initial term to address this phenomenon but since global warming created numerous misconceptions the current accepted expression is climate change.  He continues to explain that more energy is being trapped within Earth’s atmosphere and all of this energy is “stirring things up.”  Consequently, the world is warming leading to more intense phenomena, such as El Niño, which has a profound effect on weather in North America.  When Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) increase during El Niño more energy is released into the atmosphere making conditions more turbulent and resulting in extreme weather that can range from extreme drought, excessive rain, and even atypical snowstorms.

Lastly, Bill states that disbelievers of climate change are “unpatriotic,” and he reminds us that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change received a Nobel Prize for their extensive research that brought to light this phenomenon, which will remain a heated topic of debate for years to come.

THE ART OF GLOBAL WARMING coal + ice photography exhibition open at three shadows

by Avery Shackelford
Nadav Kander, Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic)
 Series: Yangtze, The Long River,
 Chromogenic Colour Print

 Chongqing, China picture taken from: , picture credit information taken from:

An art exhibition open Sept. 24 – Nov. 28 at the renowned Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing features the works of 30 photographers hailing from across the globe including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Norway, Russia, Italy, Canada, Malaysia and Germany.

These artists’ photographs tell a story from the base of the coalmine to the peaks of the Himalayas.

Photographs, including those taken by American photographer and filmmaker David Breashears, who co-directed the first IMAX film shot on Mount Everest, demonstrate how the use of coal emits greenhouse gases that are warming high-altitude climates like the Himalayas, where rapidly melting glaciers are affecting river currents, which in turn play havoc with the lives of downstream residents.

The photographs span an “arc” of phases showing how greenhouse gases resulting from coal use go up into the atmosphere causing the glaciers to melt, thus affecting the hydrologic cycle. The exhibition also includes time-lapse photos that show the changing landscape.

The goal of the exhibition is to promote environmental awareness as well as tell a beautiful, yet haunting visual story.

For more information, and to watch a behind the scenes video with commentary from the curators see the gallery’s Web site:





Coral Reefs in Decline

Coral reefs are of the utmost ecological importance in that they are estimated to harbor 25-45% of Earth’s marine species yet they only occupy .1-.2% of the oceans. They are of additional relevance due to the fact that they have a global economic value of $375 billion dollars annually, predominantly derived from the fisheries and ecotourism industries.

The success of coral reefs is highly dependent on the symbiotic bacteria they harbor known as zooxanthellae. These bacteria are vital to the survival of coral because they release up to 90% of the material they fix through photosynthesis to their coral hosts.  They play an integral role in coral calcification (growth) because they fix CO2, raise the dissolved oxygen level, and provide components of the coral’s organic matrix.

Over the past several decades, coral reefs have been in a state of decline due to increased sea surface temperatures related to global climate warming and El Niño events.  When coral reefs are exposed to these increased temperatures, they expel their zooxanthellae which they rely so heavily upon for their growth in an effect known as coral bleaching.  In 1998, following one of the most dramatic coral bleaching events on record, certain locations on the Great Barrier Reef exhibited estimated mortality rates of 80-90% of corals. In addition to rising sea surface temperatures, invasive human activity such as agricultural and sewage runoff leading to eutrophication, sedimentation from deforestation, and harmful fishing practices have also increased coral mortality rates.

This article provides a great overview as to the biological and human factors which come into play in the decline of coral reefs while simultaneously outlining the economic and ecological importance of coral reef ecosystems.

Plants That Don’t Need a Green Thumb

What would you do if your annual plant just went ahead and planted itself for the next season? This new flowering plant species found in Brazil does just that. Once it fruits, it leans over slowly and deposits its seed on or even sometimes in the ground, effectively planting itself. It was found on the property of an amateur botanist, Alex Popovkin, by a handyman working there. The flower is small and pink and white. This new find is one more piece of evidence that we still have so much to discover in the realm of flora and fauna. What’s next: crop fields that plow themselves?