A Cloud of Uncertainty

As an asthmatic child that missed a lot of school and didn’t play in many sports, I had to find truly innovative ways to geek out. I checked out the same dinosaur book from the library so many times that my first grade teacher just gave it to me one day. I wrote my own books, albeit near complete plagiarism, on chemistry and astronomy. And in an attempt to combine my geekdom with my love for the sports I couldn’t play, I created an entire league of dinosaur football teams, meticulously setting up all the yard markers and providing play-by-play for my audience of me. Cue sad music.

One other thing that has fascinated me since I can remember is weather. And within that, I continue to be mesmerized by clouds. I was still pretty young when I started to memorize all the different types – stratus, cumulus, cirrus, nimbus, cumulonimbus, cirrocumulus, altostratocumulocirrus… ok I may have made that last one up. My PhD thesis (CU Boulder – go Buffs!) was in large part about teaching a machine to categorize clouds in satellite imagery. As a postdoc (College Park, Maryland – go Terps!), I signed up to participate in a science outreach event with local kids – and so of course I created a big poster of all the different cloud types. My favorite scientific paper ever – by a landslide – was about how artists had portrayed clouds in paintings throughout history. Yeah, I like clouds.

In the last post, we explored the complex interactions between the Earth and it’s atmosphere with respect to temperature and photons – a discussion scientists typically refer to as the radiation budget. But we didn’t give a moment’s consideration to clouds, and their impact is profound. As many types of clouds as there are, the radiation budget only cares about two broad categories: clouds that cool us down, and clouds that warm us up.

The clouds that cool us down are typically thick – from space they look white, because they are reflecting the Sun’s photons back up upward, preventing them from reaching the lower atmosphere or us. The clouds that heat us up are typically thin (usually wispy cirrus) – they let a lot of the Sun’s photons in, but then they block the infrared photons from us and our atmosphere from getting back out.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? But think about how fast clouds develop, move, and dissipate, and then extrapolate that to days upon weeks upon months upon years – it’s really hard to figure out what the overall effect is. The end result is that we have a lot of uncertainty surrounding clouds and their effects on how temperatures vary across the Earth and over time.

People don’t like uncertainty. We want things to be black or white, yes or no, left or right, innie or outie, pineapple on pizza is genius or pineapple on pizza is Satan incarnate. We don’t like gray area. We want things to be settled, so we can move from step A, which is now done, to step B. How the hell can we move to step B if we haven’t answered step A with 100 percent surety?

There are few ways in which we are sillier as a species than in our desperate need for certainty (and along with that, our utter disdain for uncertainty). Nowhere are we sillier in our need for certainty than in the case of weather. It has become part of our culture to state in beer hall conversations that the weather people can never get the forecast right. And yet, they get it right an overwhelming percentage of the time. It’s just that we only remember the occasions when they are wrong. And yet, even when they are wrong, it is mostly about whether rain turned to snow, or if one particular spot got hit a little harder than another. How often do you get a blizzard when the forecast was sunny skies? Even our predictions of hurricane tracks are pretty damned good, Sharpies notwithstanding. The uncertainty is rarely about whether a big event is going to occur, it’s more about exactly when and exactly where the effects will be exactly this or exactly that.

Why can’t we get it all right down to that very last detail? Because just like our radiation budget is ultimately governed by the actions of unimaginably tiny photons, the circulation of air and heat in our atmosphere is ultimately governed by the actions of unimaginably tiny molecules, and we don’t know where all those molecules are to begin with, much less where they will end up a minute, an hour, or a couple of days from now. But why are we so brutal to our weather forecasters? Predictions about what’s going to happen to our economy are even more imperiled. How did all those predictions about the last Presidential election go? Why aren’t you a millionaire from having successfully predicted the outcomes of all the football games last season? Uncertainty rules the world. It is not a weakness of any particular endeavor, it is a fact of life. And in the case of weather and climate, a big part of that uncertainty can be traced back to clouds.

But if we knew everything that was going to happen, all of the time, what would be the point of free will? We would just be making decisions that we would have no other choice but to make. Clouds are the spice of life. A toast, to Habanerocumulus.

I don’t know about you, but I see a T-Rex returning a pick six.

A Bunch of Hot Air

Over 2500 years ago, a series of Greek philosophers attempted to understand and describe the reality of the world around us. One of the very first was a man named Thales of Miletus. Thales applied his intellect to a great deal more than just philosophy.  He was a respected advisor to the Ionians, and he is said to have been the first man to successfully predict a solar eclipse.  He also tried his hand as a tactician, once helping an army cross a river by ordering a crescent-shaped bypass to be shoveled around behind them, thus reducing the flow of the river ahead so it could be forded and passed. But for the purposes of this already digressing blog entry, Thales’ biggest contribution was his attempt to answer the question, “What is everything made of?” Thales proposed that all things in the universe are made from water.

That sounds like a quaint notion now, but consider just how revolutionary his proposition was.  Until Thales made that bold statement, the Mediterranean was awash in mythology from East to West.  All of the happenings on Earth and in the sky were attributed to one or more gods, with no further explanation deemed prudent or necessary.  For Thales to come forth and suggest that the world was made of something other than the labor of deities, whether that something was water or beer, was nothing short of a giant leap for humankind, on equal footing with the first steps of Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

When you consider where Thales lived, it does not seem silly at all that he selected water as the fundamental substance of all things.  He was a man of the sea, living in an island and coastal culture, surrounded by water in its liquid form, so much that it seemed the very Earth on which he stood was merely floating in the midst of an endless ocean. Water was critical to survival then as now. We know today that water and carbon form the basis for our entire biology, so to elevate water to the status proposed by Thales so many centuries ago is most certainly a forgivable crime. This is a central tenet of science: the people who have been wrong play just as important a role as the people who have been right. Science transcends ego. What matters is not whether Thales was right or wrong, but that he even asked the question.

Following on the thread pulled by Thales, another philosopher named Anaximenes (also of Miletus) proposed that all things are made of air. This is just as remarkable as Thales’ idea, given that in most circumstances air cannot be seen. People knew of air on some level because it can be felt – hot air, cold air, and most importantly, moving air (more lovingly known as wind). As a life giving substance, air is just as precious as water for us – but we also now know that we are not made solely of either, and that both are made of atoms. You might imagine it took centuries or even millennia after Thales and Anaximenes to figure that out, but in fact it took mere decades for the philosopher Democritus to suggest it and even give atoms their name (a name meaning “that which cannot be cut”). It then took a couple of millennia for us to rediscover atoms, and another couple of centuries to actually see them with electron microscopes. Imagine the level of abstract thought to have come up with the notion in the fifth century BC, when no microscopes of any kind were available.

Back to water and air: it’s fairly common knowledge that water is made of molecules, each of which contains two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen – H2O. Air is also made of molecules, but with quite a bit more variety, leading to a mixture of invisible gases that surround us and our planet. The most common molecule in the air is nitrogen, making up 78 percent of our skies. Only 21 percent is oxygen, the gas we all need to breathe. Almost 1 percent is argon, and the rest is a smattering of other molecules – such as methane, carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxides, and an extremely variable amount of water vapor.

Besides turn hot, turn cold, move, and keep us alive, what does air do? Well, getting back to the hot and cold part, the air at any given place and any given time has a temperature. There can’t be any question you read the last post, right? Ok, I’ll give you a few minutes. Let me know when you’re ready.

Welcome back. So, anything made of atoms or molecules with a temperature higher than absolute zero radiates energy in the form of photons. The air, being made of atoms and molecules and typically having a temperature higher than absolute zero, therefore radiates energy in the form of photons. Science is relentless. The air can also absorb the photons radiated by other things, just like other things can absorb the energy radiated by air and other other things. How much is absorbed depends on what molecules are involved. And that’s where things get even more interesting.

You know from experience that different substances absorb sunlight differently. A white shirt reflects a lot more light than a black shirt, and so you feel cooler and look brighter in white than in black. Most substances also absorb certain colors of light differently than others. The typical healthy plant contains a fair amount of chlorophyll, which absorbs more blue and red light than green light, and therefore reflects more green, some of which strikes our curious eyes, behind which our brains recall, oh yeah, most plants are green.

This concept extends into kinds of light and radiation that we cannot see – like ultraviolet and infrared. At the temperature of most things on Earth – including you, those things are emitting infrared radiation more than anything else. Some of those photons travel upward into the atmosphere, where they hit the different molecules in the air, and those molecules in turn might scatter or absorb the photons, depending on the molecule. On balance, the molecules that absorb the most photons in our atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane.

So now you’ve got this rather complicated situation. The Sun, thousands of degrees hot at its surface, from 93 million miles away, radiates photons of visible light in all directions, and some of those photons plunge into the top of our atmosphere. Some are absorbed, some are scattered, and some make it down to the surface, where they hit all manner of things, including us. This causes us to heat up and emit more of our own infrared photons back into the atmosphere, which then absorbs some and scatters some, and the photons it absorbs causes it to heat up and emit more of its own infrared photons in all directions, including back toward the surface, where they hit all manner of things, including us. This causes us to heat up some more and… you get the picture. You may have heard of this effect before – it’s called the greenhouse effect…

…which is a misleading name, as is the idea of a blanket. Greenhouses and blankets keep things warm because they don’t let the warm air escape. The atmosphere stays warm because it lets a lot of photons in but it doesn’t let all of those photons escape back into space. Eventually, even if getting absorbed and re-radiated many times along the way, some photons do eventually make it all the way up to the top of the atmosphere and trickle into space, but the rest contribute to warming our Earth and atmosphere. And so we end up arriving at some sort of equilibrium, which brings with it a general distribution of temperatures throughout the atmosphere and across the Earth. Forget greenhouses and blankets: because of the things that photons do, a planet or moon with an atmosphere is generally warmer than one without. That’s why the night side of our Moon, essentially the same distance from the Sun, is always unimaginably cold, while the night side of our Earth can often be perfectly comfortable. More generally speaking, it’s one reason our planet can support life as we know it. Usually, a bunch of hot air is couched as a negative thing. In this case, we owe it our existence.

What goes up must usually come back down.

You Are Radiant

It was a bit exhausting doing almost a year’s worth of posts on Constitutional Amendments. Having apparently learned nothing, I’m going to start a new series. But this time I’m not going to tell you the endgame. You’ll figure it out soon enough anyway, so quit your whining.

A central theme of this series is that it will be rather sciency. But it’s going to be sciency in a way that you don’t have to be sciency to get the point. I’m very sciency myself, and in a series of sciency investigations into how best to communicate this particular set of sciency information, I’ve scientifically determined that a non-sciency approach is the most scientifically sound. Let’s dive in.

You are radiant. I’m not just being nice, you are truly radiant. And why are you so radiant? Because you are hot. I’m not just being creepy, you are truly hot. Ok, let me backtrack a bit, you are relatively hot. As it turns out, there is no limit to how hot something can get in our universe. But there is a limit to how cold something can get, and it’s called absolute zero. Absolute zero is very, very cold. Ice cubes are cold, but only about zero degrees Fahrenheit or somewhat colder. Antarctica is cold, but only tens of degrees below zero. Liquid nitrogen is cold, and the depths of outer space are cold, but absolute zero is colder than any of them – about 460 degrees below zero.

Even if you are decidedly unsciency, you probably have heard that most things are made of atoms. If you glue a few atoms together, you get molecules. A molecule of water is made of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom. H2O. Whether something is made of molecules or just atoms, those molecules and atoms are usually moving around a bit. But at absolute zero, they are completely still. That is why it is not possible to be colder than absolute zero – you can’t move around any more slowly than absolutely still. The hotter you are, the more and the faster your molecules move around. At the typical 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit of a human body, they’re moving around quite rapidly. And that is why you are hot. Relatively speaking.

When you are hot, you have some energy to get rid of. Your molecules do some of that just by moving around – basically the same reason you get all fidgety when you’re bored and wish you were doing something more interesting. But they also get rid of energy by doing something extraordinary: they radiate it away.

And just what the hell does that mean? Have you ever heard of a photon? I’ll tell you the first time I heard of one – it was when I was watching Star Trek, sometime in the mid 1970’s. And when I first heard it, they were talking about photon torpedoes. I had never heard the word “photon” before that, so I deduced that they were saying “full ton torpedoes”. It just sounded more intimidating, given that they were talking about weapons. But they were actually saying “photon torpedoes”, and in doing so, they were suggesting in a way that these weapons were made of light. Light is one of those things we try very hard to to describe, but it ultimately eludes a full explanation. One of the many ways to view it, and this works quite well when trying to understand how it behaves, is to say that it is made of uncounted little particles called photons. One of the many ways to view a photon is to think of it as a tiny little packet of energy. And when atoms and molecules are moving around, they release their energy in the form of these tiny little packets. And then… those photons can run into something else, and that something else absorbs them, and with that newfound energy, it gets hotter.

This is all beginning to sound very esoteric. But scientists are not making this poo up; you experience it every day in very familiar ways. The sun is very hot, and so it emits a lot of photons of light, and when your body absorbs those photons, it gets hotter. That’s not esoteric; you’ve felt it. If you stand out there too long, you’ll even get burned. Again, you’ve felt that. Sunlight makes you warm even through a window, because the window lets photons of light through, after which they get absorbed by your body. Again in the most again kind of way: you’ve felt that. Photons and their effects are real, even if all you see is a bunch of light.

You are nowhere near as hot as the sun (sorry), but you also emit photons, only they have less energy, and so they travel around as infrared radiation (“light” that we cannot see). Snakes sense their prey because their prey are emitting infrared photons. Night vision goggles work in exactly the same way. If you put your hand over a gray piece of charcoal on your grill, it’s hot even if there is no visible flame. Same thing for an electric burner on your stove. YOU’VE FELT THAT. Photons and their effects are real, even if we can’t see them.

Light is only a very specific kind of what we call electromagnetic radiation, which also includes infrared, ultraviolet, radio waves, microwaves, X-rays, and gamma rays – all things you have most likely heard of. All of these things are made of photons, although the colder the thing that’s emitting them gets, the more they behave like waves – hence the terms “radio waves” and “microwaves”. We’ll get into waves some other time. No, seriously.

Bottom line: anything whose temperature is above absolute zero emits photons of energy. That includes the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, you, your friends, your enemies, your house, your car, the oceans, the atmosphere, your phone, your computer, your clothes, your food, your favorite drink, clouds, stars, galaxies, and yes, even bacon. A moment of silence in awe of bacon.


You’re probably wondering what the point is here. I already told you, this is a series of seven posts. For God’s sake, please calm down.

Until next time.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

Sky Blue Sharpie

Some states are better at getting attention than others. Alabama is probably one of the better ones in this regard, owing in recent years to their football team and their state legislature. But unless you reside beneath a stone, you’re probably aware of the newest story, which as far as I can tell was not initiated by anyone in the state of Alabama: their already near-legendary flirtation with a hurricane. Or not.

Now let’s be completely fair here: it is indeed possible for a hurricane to endanger the good people of Alabama (and the bad folks as well). Alabama has some coastline on the Gulf of Mexico, which means the storm surge (often the most damaging part of a hurricane) can hit it directly, as has happened a handful of times in the past. And even land locked states can feel the effects of a hurricane once it moves inland (although it typically loses steam rather quickly in that scenario).

Of course, the debate of the past couple of weeks has centered around whether this particular hurricane (Dorian) ever threatened Alabama. And again, to be fair, we are always trying to get better at predicting the tracks of these storms. Even for an individual storm, the predicted track can and does change in the days leading up to landfall. And yet, on balance, we’ve become remarkably good at it. Even 14 years ago, the forecasters pretty much nailed what Katrina was going to do.

In my career, I have had the good fortune to get to know, and become friends with, a number of people in the National Weather Service. You will be hard pressed to find a group of people more dedicated to their mission, because above all else, their job is to protect your life and property. You will also therefore be hard pressed to find a better bargain as an American taxpayer. That is all I’m going to say about their motivations in this political storm that has sadly overtaken the real storm. A storm which, by the way, destroyed a significant part of an entire nation (the Bahamas), and that has even more sadly become a footnote in American discourse.

People far more eloquent than me (meaning all people) have already described what went wrong here. But I will ineloquently focus on one fundamental issue: the art of delegation. Anyone who has run a successful business, or a successful government, or a successful military campaign, or a successful sports franchise, knows the value of naming the right people to make the right decisions that the top dog simply doesn’t have time to make. The President of the United States is (or at least should be) the most extreme example one could possibly conjure. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service spends a great deal of effort not just on predicting the weather, but also on determining the best way to warn us about it. Telling people a deadly storm is coming has enormous consequences. If that warning is wrong, the economic impact is significant, and it could even cause fatalities during the resulting evacuation. If you’re wrong too often, people will also stop listening to the warnings altogether. The science of predicting how people respond to weather warnings is as challenging as the science of predicting the weather itself.

It’s a fundamental truth that none of us has enough time to become an expert at everything. I’m still searching for one thing myself. But most of us have a job of some sort, and that job entails knowing more about certain things than other people know. When I need to present something that my team has done, I try to make sure that my team members are there to speak for their part. Not just because they deserve credit (which they do), but because they know far more about what they do and what they did than I ever will. On the flip side, how often do you enjoy watching your boss usurp or take credit for the job you were hired to do? Letting your people do their jobs frees you up to do what you need to do as a leader, and it makes your people future leaders at the same time. So when your people were trained their whole lives and specifically hired to make sure the right people are being warned about the right storms at the right time, it’s probably a good idea not to issue the warnings yourself. #failuretodelegate #business101

But actually, everything I’ve said to this point has been a digression from what I originally intended to discuss. A buddy of mine joked that Alabama would now need to be warned by default about all impending disasters wherever they may be. I responded that it would make more sense to remind all Alabamans that they live “where the skies are so blue”. And then I started thinking, hey, what’s up with that?

The implication from the Meteorology Department at Lynyrd Skynyrd Technical Institute is that Alabama has bluer skies than the other states. Meanwhile, in my home state of Colorado, we often remind folks that we have 300 days of sunshine a year. We’re just kidding by the way. Colorado has one day of sunshine a year, and it’s on a bad ozone day. Our restaurants and museums and parks and general quality of life are the worst on Earth, so please please PLEASE stop moving here!

That said, just how blue are the skies of Alabama? There are two ways to tackle that question: how often are the skies clear, and how blue is it when they are? Let’s hit the latter first: Alabama is humid. I’ve been to Tuscaloosa, and Denver was never as sloppy wet in broad daylight. And when it’s more humid, it generally tends to be hazier, meaning on a sunny day, Alabama’s skies are whiter and Colorado’s skies are bluer. Please don’t let that detract from my earlier statement: a bluer sky can’t even come close to rescuing Colorado from its comprehensive unpleasantness. Please please PLEASE stop moving here!

Now let’s get to that other question: how often is it clear in Alabama? So – again – I was in Tuscaloosa for a few days a few years ago. Far as I can remember, it was sunny the whole time. Two things about that: 1) I can’t remember where I left my phone a few minutes ago; 2) whatever I experienced for those few days in Tuscaloosa was weather; how often it is clear in Tuscaloosa is climate. Climatology, to be more exact: the study of what conditions are generally more prevalent over time in a given spot on our Earth. Not on any given day; but on average over thousands of days.

So, if I were to do this right, I would go to another part of NOAA: the National Center for Environmental Information. I have friends there too, and they take their jobs very seriously as well. If you want to understand what’s happening today, you need to understand what happened in the past. These folks are charged with making sure those records are accurate, and that whatever new information we obtain can be compared apples-to-apples. But doing this right would require the kind of time and money that would come with a grant, and I’m not going to get one of those. So I opted for the next best (no, not anywhere near next best) thing: Googling “days of sunshine a year by state”.

The top hit was a site called “currentresults.com”. I have no idea how reliable this site is, but they only give a number for one city per state. For Alabama, it’s Birmingham, and they are reported to have 99 clear days a year. Grand Junction, Colorado, has 136. 136 days of otherwise abject misery: please please PLEASE stop moving here! Arizona unsurprisingly wins with 193. Washington unsurprisingly brings up the rear with 58, but they’re actually tied with Vermont. I suspect we will soon see maple syrup used more frequently in cloud seeding.

The Washington Post ran an article a few years ago that was ultimately based on data from NASA. The Southwest won again there, but it looks like that little tip of Alabama on the Gulf Coast can hold its own. NerdWallet went to the trouble I apparently wasn’t willing to, and checked out some data from NOAA, resulting in a list of the sunniest cities. Arizona has four in the top ten. Colorado’s top entry is Pueblo at #13. Birmingham comes in at #97.

And so, aside from respecting the hard-working folks at NOAA and appreciating the value of delegation, I want you to remember three key things here:

  1. Colorado is a cesspool and you should totally stop moving here
  2. “Sweet Home Alabama” should have been named “Sweet Home Arizona”
  3. Regardless of (2), I know from the bottom of my heart that Ronnie Van Zant and friends were so confident his song would become a hit that he would have written it in sky blue Sharpie, had such a fantabulous color existed at the time.
A Southern man don’t need clouds anyhow.

On Paper…

I’ll admit, I’m pretty burned out on the Constitutional Amendment posts. But I did promise one more post about the original document itself, so let’s go check that box.

The main body of the Constitution contains a Preamble and seven Articles. Most people would recognize the words of the Preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Preamble has generally not been used all that much in Supreme Court rulings. That said, it wouldn’t have been written, with the words in which it was, unless someone felt it necessary. We could debate for hours on the meaning of common defense and general welfare, but if you gut the Preamble and just look at the beginning and the end, that’s probably the most powerful aspect of it: “We the People of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Not Congress, not a Government, but the People. It’s a concise expression of democracy, even if we don’t really live in one.

The first three Articles of the Constitution break it down for the three branches of Government: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial.

Article I establishes the House of Representatives and the Senate, and how and when they are elected. It also contains the infamous three fifths compromise, which was thankfully overridden by later Amendments. The latter portions of Article I deal with how bills are generated and the powers of Congress regarding taxation.

Article II establishes the Presidency and the electoral rules surrounding it, including the ridiculous Electoral College. It also names the President as Commander in Chief, and requires the President to “from time to time” give a State of the Union to Congress. Section 4 of Article II has received special attention of late:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

While it makes for spirited conversation, it’s unlikely to become anything more than that with our current Government; only the House can impeach, but only the Senate can convict.

Article III establishes the Supreme Court and goes on a bit about treason. Interestingly, it says nothing about how many members the Supreme Court should have. Congress set the initial number at five in 1801, then upped it to seven in 1807 and nine in 1837. In 1863, it actually hit ten before being reduced again.

Article IV goes into the power of the states and their citizens, including how to handle persons charged with crimes moving from one state into another. It also specifies that new states may be admitted into the Union by Congress, but not by extracting from or merging existing states (unless so approved by the respective state legislatures). Finally, it guarantees a Republican (the type of rule, not the party, which didn’t exist yet) form of Government to every state and protection of states against invasion.

Article V establishes the Amendment process, and since it’s relatively short and the basis for the previous year’s worth of posts on this site, here it is:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

Article VI is a collection point for other miscellaneous items: debts remaining from the previous Articles of Confederation era; the supremacy of the Constitution; the binding of Government officials to supporting the Constitution; and a note that no religious test can ever be applied as a qualification for public office.

Article VII is the shortest…

The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

…and its work is done here.

And so is mine. Check.

We have truly lost the art of good handwriting.