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Climate Change




116 years ago, the Pasterze glacier in the Austria's Eastern Alps was postcard perfect:

Snowy peaks. Windswept valleys. Ruddy-cheeked mountain children in lederhosen playing "Edelweiss" on the flugelhorn.

But a lot has changed since 1900.

Much of it has changed for the better! We've eradicated smallpox, Hitler is dead, and the song "Billie Jean" exists now.

On the downside, the Earth has gotten a lot hotter. A lot hotter.

The 15 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. July 2016 was the planet's hottest month — ever.

Unsurprisingly, man-made climate change has wreaked havoc on the planet's glaciers — including the Pasterze, which is Austria's largest.

Just how much havoc are we talking about? Well...


A series of stunning photos, published in August, show just how far the glacier has receded since its heyday.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

First measured in 1851, the glacier lost half of its mass between that year and 2008.

The glacier today.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

A marker placed in 1985 shows where the edge of the glacier reached just 31 years ago. You can still see the ice sheet, but just barely, way off in the distance. In between is ... a big, muddy lake.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

The view from the glacial foot marker from 1995 — 10 years later — isn't much more encouraging.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Even in just one year, 2015, the glacier lost an astounding amount of mass — 177 feet, by some estimates.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Ice continues to melt daily, and while the dripping makes for a good photo, it's unfortunate news for planet Earth. Glacial melting is one of the three primary causes of sea-level rise.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

According to a European Environment Agency report, the average temperature in the Alps has increased 2 degrees Celsius in the last 100 years — double the global average.

Beautiful, but ominous, fissures in the glacier.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

It's not unreasonable to assume that that's why this mountain hut has been abandoned by the flugelhorn-playing children who once probably lived in it.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Is there anything we can do to stop climate change besides look at scary glacier photos?

Climate change is, unfortunately, still a robust debate in the United States as many of our elected officials refuse to acknowledge that we humans are the ones doing the changing. As of last year, that list included a whopping 49 senators. Calling them to gently persuade them otherwise would be helpful. Not voting for them if they don't change their minds would be even more so.

There is some tentative good news — the Paris Agreement signed in December 2015 commits 197 countries, including the U.S., to take steps to limit future global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. While it may be too late for the Pasterze glacier, if we really commit as a world, we might be able to stop ourselves from sinking whole countries and turning Miami into a swimming pool and stuff like that.

And who knows, with a little luck, and a little more not poisoning the sky, we just might recapture a little of that Alpine magic one day.

OK, these guys are Swiss. But who's counting?

Photo by Cristo Vlahos/Wikimedia Commons.

This article originally appeared on 3.11.17

Science

Americans see gardening changes as 'plant hardiness zones' shift across half the U.S.

Here's a quick tool to find out if your zone has changed due to warmer temperatures.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash, Map by USDA-ARS and Oregon State University (Public Domain)

The USDA has issued a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map

Millions of American households have a garden of some sort, whether they grow vegetables, fruits flowers or other plants. Gardening has always been a popular hobby, but more Americans turned to tending plants during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic for both stress relief and to grow their own food so they could make less trips to the store. For many people, it's a seasonal ritual that's therapeutic and rewarding.

But a shift is occurring in the gardening world. Now, due to rising temperature data, half the country find themselves in a different "plant hardiness zone"—the zones that indicate what plants work well in an area and when to plant them. Gardeners rely on knowing their hardiness zone to determine what to plant and when, but they haven't been updated since 2012.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its Plant Hardiness Zone Map in late 2023, months before people in most of the country start planning their planting. We saw the 10 hottest summers ever recorded in 174 years of climate data between 2014 and 2023, but hardiness zones are actually determined by the coldest winter temperatures each year. Winters are warming at an even faster pace than summers, according to nonpartisan research and communications group Climate Central, but that may or may not be the entire reason behind the zone changes.

The USDA acknowledges that some of the zone shifts could be due to climate change but cautions against using them as hard evidence for it since factors such as improved data collection also contribute to changes in the map.

people planting flowers

Gardening can be a solo or community endeavor.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

"Temperature updates to plant hardiness zones are not necessarily reflective of global climate change because of the highly variable nature of the extreme minimum temperature of the year, as well as the use of increasingly sophisticated mapping methods and the inclusion of data from more weather stations," the USDA wrote in November 2023. "Consequently, map developers involved in the project cautioned against attributing temperature updates made to some zones as reliable and accurate indicators of global climate change (which is usually based on trends in overall average temperatures recorded over long time periods)."

At the same time, Chris Daly, director of the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University that developed the map with the USDA, told NPR, "Over the long run, we will expect to see a slow shifting northward of zones as climate change takes hold."

As an example of zone shifting, Dallas, Texas, was classified as Zone 8a in 2012, when data showed the coldest winter temperature in the city was between 10 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit on average. In 2023, with data showing the coldest winter temps falling between 15 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it's been shifted to Zone 8b.

Some zone shifts resulted in moving to an entirely new zone number, such as Seattle shifting from Zone 8b to Zone 9a. The overall trend was for zones to be pushed northward, but not all areas saw a shift. NPR has a helpful tool here in which you can enter your zip code, see what zone your city was previously in, what zone it's in now, and the temperature changes that caused the shift.

The bottom line is if you have a gardening book with a hardiness zones map printed before 2024, it's time for an updated map. Or check online to see what zone you fall in now to give your garden the best chance of thriving this year.

A map of the United States post land-ice melt.




Land ice: We got a lot of it.

Considering the two largest ice sheets on earth — the one on Antarctica and the one on Greenland — extend more than 6 million square miles combined ... yeah, we're talkin' a lot of ice.

But what if it was all just ... gone? Not like gone gone, but melted?


If all of earth's land ice melted, it would be nothing short of disastrous.

And that's putting it lightly.

This video by Business Insider Science (seen below) depicts exactly what our coastlines would look like if all the land ice melted. And spoiler alert: It isn't great.

Lots of European cities like, Brussels and Venice, would be basically underwater.

In Africa and the Middle East? Dakar, Accra, Jeddah — gone.

Millions of people in Asia, in cities like Mumbai, Beijing, and Tokyo, would be uprooted and have to move inland.

South America would say goodbye to cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

And in the U.S., we'd watch places like Houston, San Francisco, and New York City — not to mention the entire state of Florida — slowly disappear into the sea.

All GIFs via Business Insider Science/YouTube.

Business Insider based these visuals off National Geographic's estimation that sea levels will rise 216 feet (!) if all of earth's land ice melted into our oceans.

There's even a tool where you can take a detailed look at how your community could be affected by rising seas, for better or worse.

Although ... looking at these maps, it's hard to imagine "for better" is a likely outcome for many of us.

Much of America's most populated regions would be severely affected by rising sea levels, as you'll notice exploring the map, created by Alex Tingle using data provided by NASA.

Take, for instance, the West Coast. (Goodbye, San Fran!)

Or the East Coast. (See ya, Philly!)

And the Gulf Coast. (RIP, Bourbon Street!)

I bring up the topic not just for funsies, of course, but because the maps above are real possibilities.

How? Climate change.

As we continue to burn fossil fuels for energy and emit carbon into our atmosphere, the planet gets warmer and warmer. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means melted ice.

A study published this past September by researchers in the U.S., U.K., and Germany found that if we don't change our ways, there's definitely enough fossil fuel resources available for us to completely melt the Antarctic ice sheet.

Basically, the self-inflicted disaster you see above is certainly within the realm of possibility.

"This would not happen overnight, but the mind-boggling point is that our actions today are changing the face of planet Earth as we know it and will continue to do so for tens of thousands of years to come," said lead author of the study Ricarda Winkelmann, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

If we want to stop this from happening," she says, "we need to keep coal, gas, and oil in the ground."

The good news? Most of our coastlines are still intact! And they can stay that way, too — if we act now.

World leaders are finallystarting to treat climate change like the global crisis that it is — and you can help get the point across to them, too.

Check out Business Insider's video below:

This article originally appeared on 12.08.15

Science

People say clouds look different these days. It's not suspicious — it's climate change.

Here's the scoop on why you might be seeing more people talking about clouds and conspiracies.

Photos by Cristina Anne Costello on Unsplash (left) and Mark Valentine on Unsplash (right)

People say they used to see more fluffy cumulus clouds against a brighter blue sky. They may not be wrong.

Have you noticed that clouds are looking a bit different than you remember them when you were younger? Less fluffy and more wispy? Fewer billowing clouds against a bold, blue sky and more washed out skies with see-through cloud patterns?

There have always been different kinds of clouds, of course, but people are remarking that something seems to have changed, which has led to all kinds of conspiracy theories. Combined with the debunked theories about contrails being "chemtrails," a whole new wave of suspicions about our skies is taking hold. Some people say it's all in their heads, but others are insistent that the sky just isn't the same.

There is a scientific explanation for why clouds might actually be changing, but not one that conspiracy-minded folks are going to like. It's most likely due to climate change, as climate scientists predicted that these cloud changes would be coming years ago.


First, let's look at the different kinds of clouds and where they form in the atmosphere. Those billowy, cartoon-like cumulus clouds we all enjoy are formed at lower altitudes, while the wispy cirrus or spotty cirrocumulus clouds that make the sky look washed out or mottled are formed higher up in the stratosphere. In reality, all different cloud types are common, but climate change is making those higher, wispier ones more common.

chart showing different kinds of clouds

Fluffy clouds are low clouds, wispy clouds are high clouds.

Valentin de Bruyn / Coton (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2016, Dr. Ilissa Ocko explained that models had predicted that climate change would push clouds higher in the sky and scientists were starting to see evidence of it happening. Ocko, who earned her Ph.D. and M.A. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at Princeton University, wrote, "A warmer Earth elevates clouds because the troposphere, the lowest layer of our atmosphere where weather occurs, can extend higher with a hotter surface." As the

Not only are higher cloud formations an effect of climate change, but they also contribute to it. While clouds reflect the sun's light, higher clouds also trap heat, potentially accelerating the warming of the planet's surface. As Ocko explained:

"Anything that absorbs energy must also re-emit energy. How much is released depends on the temperature of the object.

Heat absorbed and then re-emitted by low clouds that are close to the ground is similar to the heat emitted by the surface because the temperature of the ground and the cloud are similar.

But the higher the cloud is in the sky, the colder it is. So when these high clouds absorb Earth’s heat, they re-emit it at a much lower temperature, forming a blanket that traps heat in the climate system similar to how greenhouse gases trap heat."

side by side images of cumulus clouds and cirrus clouds

Cumulus clouds vs. cirrus clouds (and contrails)

Photos by Cristina Anne Costello on Unsplash (left) and Mark Valentine on Unsplash (right)

So what we end up with, in theory, is a self-perpetuating issue of higher cloud formation both being propelled by and amplifying climate change.

However, the science is still very much in flux when it comes to clouds and climate change. Predictive models aren't perfect, and some phenomena scientists expected have played out differently in real life, both for better and for worse. For instance, more recent research shows that trade cumulus clouds, which help cool the Earth, are affected less than expected by a warming atmosphere. That's good news. On the other hand, scientists have also found that mixed-phase clouds, which were predicted to have a dampening effect on climate change, don't help as much as they thought, especially when temperature rise accelerates. That's not good news.

There are a lot of cloud-climate change connections and scientists are continuously looking for clues and possibilities for how clouds can help or hinder our efforts to battle the climate crisis.

But what about the contrails that some folks erroneously call "chemtrails"? Despite being a well-known phenomenon of clouds formed from the condensation of a jet's exhaust, they too play a role in climate change. Contrails form when the humidity and temperature the plane is flying through are right (cold and humid), and the troposphere where modern planes fly provide tend to provide those conditions.

While contrails aren't some big government conspiracy to drop toxic chemicals on the unsuspecting populous, they aren't harmless. Some contrails dissipate quickly, but under certain atmospheric conditions, they can linger and spread out to create those wispy clouds that trap heat in the atmosphere. Some estimates cite contrails as being responsible for more than a third of the total aviation contribution to climate change.

contrails criss crossing in the sky

Contrails are a known phenomena in aviation and a problem for climate change.

Photo by Brigitte Elsner on Unsplash

Thankfully, the aviation industry is testing ways to best reduce contrails, including flying at different altitudes. There are tradeoffs with fuel consumption, so a balance has to be struck, but as we learn more there will surely be more innovations that help.

The bottom line is that yes, clouds may actually be different from what we remember in our youth, but it's not because of anything nefarious or suspicious. It's most likely what scientists have seen coming for years and we are now seeing the effects of—climate change. All the more reason for us to take action to slow it down now.