Hot and Cold

Summer has a vise grip on Houston. The heat and humidity are relentless, oppressive, and will not abate until sometime in October. Any rain that falls will be graciously welcomed by the plants, but will only add to human misery with mosquitos and heavy “air you can wear.”

So what better time to follow the news from Antarctica about the imminent collapse of the Larsen C Ice Shelf. I was only vaguely aware of this phenomenon, I remember hearing the odd news tidbit, but I’ve doing a little internet research.

Ice shelves are thick sheets of ice that float on the water but are connected to land. They form when a glacier reaches the sea, but the water is cold enough that the flow just continues out into the ocean. We’ve all seen videos of icebergs forming or calving off from a glacier. This is where the water isn’t cold enough to keep an ice flow from melting, so the glacial ice falls and breaks off instead of continuing to flow. Ice sheets will naturally vary in size year to year. Small pieces at the sea edge regularly calve off, and the thickness will vary with temperature and the amount of glacial flow. The largest ice sheets are around the continent of Antarctica.

Photo from the National Snow & Ice Data Center

The Larsen Ice Shelf used to be much bigger, but Larsen A disintegrated in 1995 and a section of Larsen B roughly the size of Rhode Island broke off in 2002. Last November, scientists photographed a rapidly growing rift, or crack, on Larsen C. This crack has grown at an unprecedented rate and scientists are expecting a section the size of Scotland to break off soon. (“Soon” being a very subjective term.)

By NASA photographs by John Sonntag –, Public Domain, From wikipedia

So then what happens? Well, no one is sure since this will be the largest ice shelf collapse ever observed. Since the ice is already floating on the water, there won’t be an immediate effect on sea level. Again, ice shelves do grow and shrink, but the Larsen Ice Shelf is unlikely to recover from a collapse of this size. It’s a huge compounding of effects. The rift was at least accelerated by climate change. Warmer air and water temperatures directly contribute to this type of calving. Sea ice floating near the shelf, which helps protect the shelf, continues to diminish. Once the shelf collapses, the flow of the glacier into the water will likely accelerate. All this melting ice will cause sea levels to rise. Which will further damage and reduce the size of ice shelves. Less snow and ice cover in and around Antarctica will contribute to rising air temperatures. Which cause….need I go on…and on and on and on…?

Don’t let trump’s twitter feed distract you from following the news from Antarctica. It’s interesting. It’s important. And maybe it’ll help take your mind off the temperature outside.   Love me some wikipedia.  Quick facts on ice shelves from the NSIDC. A rather dismal (tho I believe valid) take on the situation.  The latest news from MIDAS, a scientific group keeping a close eye on the rift.



First, we wonder

I’m not a space geek.

As I’ve written here on numerous occasions, I am a small-world person and there’s not much further away from my small world than outer space. I’m not the one who is prepared to argue, for or against, the merits of spending money and resources on space travel and exploration. Cost/benefit analyses make my head hurt. Why does an economist have the ultimate determination of something’s worth?

I’m looking forward to some star gazing under dark skies next week. While some will look up and imagine a future in the stars, I will look up and feel a pull to the past. I am fascinated by the story tellers of past cultures who named the constellations and invented reasons for the stars in the sky.  I marvel at the minds who looked up and were driven to understand the workings of our solar system.  It’s what humans have always done. First we wonder, and then we want to learn and explain why.

NASA has recently been releasing pictures of Jupiter taken by the Juno spacecraft. I may not be a space geek, but I would be happy with these photos hanging up as artwork all over my home.

Who could look at that picture and not wonder, and not want to understand what you are seeing? The picture gallery linked to above is only a small part of the NASA site on the Juno mission. A person could spend hours (and hours and hours) bopping around the NASA website learning way more that I, the non-space geek, have any desire to learn. But, wow, NASA does an incredible job trying to connect with people on the web. In my quick skim, here’s one thing that caught my eye in the mission overview:

In Greek and Roman mythology, Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief. It was Jupiter’s wife, the goddess Juno, who was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter’s true nature. The Juno spacecraft will also look beneath the clouds to see what the planet is up to, not seeking signs of misbehavior, but helping us to understand the planet’s structure and history.

I love that NASA gives a nod to the story tellers of the past while operating in a future that would have been inconceivable to people even just 100 years ago.

Here’s a link to a short and readable National Geographic story summarizing some of the first scientific findings from Juno.

I’m not a space geek, but this is all pretty damn cool.

First, we wonder… but that is only step one. We are human, we always want to take step two.

Don’t knock it

Are you familiar with those Nyquil ads where a woman a woman earnestly says, “I’m sorry, I need to call in sick today,” and then the shot pans to the child in the crib? Followed by the tagline, “Moms don’t take sick days, moms take Nyquil.” (There’s a dad version, too, I’m happy to report.) I realized that’s one of the great things about being retired from working and an empty nester – I totally called in sick from life yesterday. It was just a nasty cold, but I had chills and fever all day and basically never left the couch. Happy to report that I am on the mend today, but still taking it easy.

The upside for you, oh loyal Thoughts From the Back readers, is that I don’t have the energy to pull together the full ranting post that I had planned for this week. So I’ll just summarize:

It’s not that I don’t like big corporations. I’m totally a capitalist kid. BUT don’t ever, ever think that a corporation has any soul, heart, or social conscience.

Here is a rather long tale about the scientist who discovered the connection between leaded gasoline and lead in the environment. Mental Floss headlined the story, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of.” I found it absolutely fascinating. As often happens in science, this wasn’t the issue that Clare Patterson started investigating, he was actually trying to determine the age of the earth. As often happens in our country, it became a political battle between corporations and a government agency, the EPA, to decide what to believe and who should be protected. Eventually, the EPA banned lead in gasoline and no one denies that it has directly resulted in a dramatic decrease in the amount of lead in the bloodstream of the average American.

Not only is the story of Clare Patterson a tale about corporations protecting themselves, it is also a tale about how important federal oversight can be. The Trump administration’s efforts to cripple agencies like the EPA is dangerous.

Clare Patterson might be the most important scientist I’ve never heard of, but I feel like he might just be one on a very long list. I feel optimistic about the future knowing that there are other scientists working today to find other truths.

Starting somewhere

Sometimes I wish that I only had ONE hot button issue, one issue that commanded my full political and philanthropic support, but alas, there are many. I lament the absence of moderation, independence, and compromise in political arenas. It feels like for years, the issue pendulums have been pulled so far to one side or the other that there are never minor adjustments; they always swing way past center to another extreme. Yet there is one issue that may not be riding on a pendulum afterall; we may be pushing it to the breaking point, past the point of no return. That issue is climate change.

I believe it’s real. I believe humanity is a major cause. I believe that if humans don’t act soon to do what they can to halt the warming of the planet…  OK, I don’t really know what’s going to happen, but I don’t want my legacy to be that I didn’t care and didn’t do anything.

Every bit of information I’ve ever seen about what you can do as an individual to help the planet contains, usually at the top of the list, eat less meat. So last November, when I knew that political progress on climate change issues was going to grind to a halt, I chose to stop eating mammals. It’s not a protest, it’s not for the duration of the Trump presidency, it’s a lifestyle change.

It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

It is, however, also good for me.

Every bit of information I’ve ever seen about what you can do to improve your individual health thru your diet contains, usually at the top of the list, eat less meat. So as I struggle to keep my weight, blood pressure and cholesterol numbers in a healthy range, I made the lifestyle change to stop eating mammals.

It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

It is, however, also good for the mammals.

You may not care, but still it’s pretty hard to argue with that one.

I’m now six months into this. Global warming trends have not been reversed. Per capita beef consumption is not plummeting. I still need medication to keep bp and ldl numbers in the healthy range. I still “need” to lose 15 pounds. For the health of both the planet and myself I need to be even more selective in what I eat.

But it’s a start.



This is your brain on life

The brain is the most amazingest part of the amazing human body. I became acquainted with my brain when I was born, but I still haven’t learned how it works or how to use it to anywhere near its full potential. Like most of our bodies, we mostly take it for granted. It took watching my father in the aftermath of a stroke to really start thinking about how amazing and complicated and fragile the brain is.

I don’t need to tell you about the huge impact medical science has had on all our lives, nor how the blend of scientific disciplines and their subsets – biology, chemistry, engineering, etc – has combined to save, improve, and protect human beings. And it’s a really good thing that I don’t need to tell you those things because the History and Accomplishments of Medical Science is a bit too large of a subject to tackle in this blog.

Matthew Inman, aka The Oatmeal, is a web-based cartoonist. I became acquainted with his site after I backed his successful kick-starter funded card game called Exploding Kittens. Generally his work is just a little too profane for my taste, but I follow him on twitter and check in at his website every once in a while because of pieces like this. I’m sure it’s been floating all around facebook and other social media locales that I don’t visit, but everyone should give it a read. So take time to click thru and check it out, if you haven’t already. It talks about how we listen, and how we react to certain things that we hear.

I plan to work at becoming a new kind of listener. Here’s hoping that the most politically partisan among us can listen harder, clearer, and better. And maybe learn to act, react, and speak with deliberation and not just instinctive reflex. If not, I plan to be part of a backfire effect that goes beyond the brain and into the ballot box.

The brain, medicine, … and web comics. Look out, science is coming at you from all directions.

Inman cites sources and references in and at the end of his comic. Later on twitter, he also linked to this article which gives another simple explanation on the psychology behind it.