Category Archives: Science

Steamy July: Maybe a Record Month for Heat After All

by Categorized: Data, Environment, Science Date:

In our last post, we celebrated the end of a week-long heatwave by noting that as brutal as July 2013 has been, it was certain to fall short as a record-breaking month as measured by either average high temperatures or by the number of days – or days in a row – that the thermometer topped 90.

But as astute readers pointed out, the maximum daily temperature is not the only way to gauge heat, and this month has been noteworthy for steamy nights that seemed to hold onto oppressive temps long after the sun was down. Climatologists, in fact, frequently measure the hotness of a period by looking at the average daily temperature; not a true weighted average evaluating the temperature at multiple points throughout the day, but simply by taking the mid-point between the daily high and the daily low.

And when July’s numbers are crunched in that fashion – well, let’s just say that those of you with central air conditioning may be in for a shock when your next electric bill arrives.

So far this month, the midpoint between high and low temperatures in Hartford has averaged 81.2 degrees. That tops every July going back at least to 1920, just as this month’s average high temperature – 89.1 degrees – is unmatched.

But while moderating temperatures for the rest of the month are certain to knock out July 2013’s chances of having the hottest high temperatures since at least 1920, the month is likely to retain its distinction as having the hottest average temperature on record.

For the full month of July, the highest average temperature since 1920 was 78.8 degrees, set in 2010. That’s more than 3 degrees lower than this month’s average temperature to date, and it would take some unusually cool weather over the next nine days for July 2013 to lose the top spot in average temperature.

As long as average temperatures hit at least 73.1 degrees for the rest of the July (as they have every day for a month), July 2013 will top every other month since at least 1920 in average daytime and nighttime temperatures.

So by that measure, one for the record books after all.

July’s Heat – A Rarity, But Not a Record

by Categorized: Data, Environment, Science Date:

The thermometer maxed out at a comparatively chilly 87 degrees in Hartford Sunday, meaning the region’s stifling, week-long heatwave is officially one for the history books.

But it’s not one for the record books.

cokethermometerBy almost every measure, Hartford has endured worse than the seven-day roasting that began with July 14th’s 92-degree day. Seven straight days of 90-degree weather is highly unusual for the region. But record-breaking? Not even close.

Including the heatwave that concluded Saturday, Hartford has recorded at least 10 week-long stretches of 90-plus temperatures since 1920 – the earliest year for which electronic data is available. And in six of those events, the hot weather extended at least to an eighth day, including – how quickly we forget – an eight-day stretch just two summers ago.

In 1973 and again in 2002, Hartford sweltered during nine-day stretches of 90-degree heat. And while data for much of 1995 is unavailable for Hartford, the weather station at Bradley International Airport recorded a ten-day stretch of 90-plus weather that year.

This recent heatwave began less than a week after a previous run of hot weather, a five-day stretch of temperatures topping 90 than began July 4th. That means there have been more 90-degree days than not this month, a rarity – but again, not a record.

So far there have been 12 days above 90 this month, but we’re not likely to add more than one or two additional super-hot days – and probably won’t add any – through the end of the month. So we’re certain to lag behind July 2010’s 16 days of 90-degree heat, and the 15 days in July of 2011 and 1999.

July 2013 does cling to one record, though it will be temporary. Through Sunday, the average daily high temperature for the month was 89.4 degrees. That’s higher than any July in the past 93 years for which data is available. But that top spot won’t last.

With moderating temperatures forecast for the rest of the month, July 2013 will likely end up as one of the five or ten hottest on record, but still less steamy than the Julys of 2010 and 2011. (And July 1999 will likely retain its title as the hottest month on record, with an average high of 89.2 degrees.)

While this particular blazing stretch may not medal in the heat Olympics, it does appear to be part of a larger trend of unparalleled high temperatures. Over the past 10 years, the average high temperature in July  – the hottest month of the year – was about 85.5 degrees, nearly a full degree higher than the next-hottest 10-year stretch going back eight decades.

And that’s a record that could well leave those concerned about global warming breaking out in a sweat.

Understanding the Power of a Storm Surge

by Categorized: Science Date:

The greatest potential for damage in Connecticut from Sandy may come from storm surges across the southern coast of the state. Storm surges occur when strong winds literally push sea water toward the shore, causing the water to pile up on itself and creating waves dramatically higher than normal tides.

Current projections from the National Hurricane Center suggest a 50-50 possibility that coastal areas in Fairfield County will see storm surges as high as 5 feet, and a 10 to 20 percent possibility of surges as high as 10 feet. Smaller surges are expected farther east. In New London, for example, current models show a 50 percent possibility of 3-foot surges and a 10 to 20 percent chance of 6-foot surges. During Tropical Storm Irene, the surge ranged from 3 to 6 feet.

The map below shows the current projections for the likelihood of a five-foot storm surge along the coast.

Click here for a Flash animation from the National Hurricane Center showing the devastating power of a very large storm surge.

How Accurate Are Those Hurricane Forecasts?

by Categorized: Data, Science, Technology Date:

Hurricane Sandy is four days – or maybe six days – from making U.S. landfall somewhere around New Jersey – or maybe northern Maine.

Hurricane forecasting has improved dramatically in the last half century – it wasn’t until 1988 that the National Hurricane Center even released 36-hour forecasts – but it’s still an inexact science confounded by the fickle ways of Mother Nature.

So how soon is too soon to start packing or panicking? The chart below shows the average accuracy of the Hurricane Center’s tracking of Atlantic storms over the last five years, from 12 hours to five days out. So for example, at five days out – the blue 120-hour line – the forecast was off by less than 200 nautical miles about the half the time and off by more than 200 miles about half the time.

Likewise, the green line shows that 48 hours out, the forecast track was off by no more than about 100 nautical miles 70 percent of the time. And the accuracy naturally gets better still as the time frame shrinks.

So where and when will Sandy hit? Who knows. But just in case, you might want to print out the chart so you have something to read by candlelight next week.

GlaxoSmithKline: From Pharmaceutical Powerhouse to Sophisticated Criminal Enterprise

by Categorized: Consumer Affairs, Health, Legal Affairs, Science, Technology Date:

News outlets across the country dutifully reported a week ago that pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline had struck a deal with federal prosecutors, agreeing to pay $3 billion to settle criminal and civil charges related to its illegal promotion of various drugs.

Such deals have become sufficiently commonplace – Big Pharma has paid nearly $10 billion in the last 3 1/2 years to make federal authorities go away – that there may be a bit of fraud fatigue in reading such stories. But lawbreaking by pharmaceutical companies kills people and puts countless others at risk, so it’s worth revisiting the depth to which GlaxoSmithKline fell on its journey from respected pharmaceutical powerhouse to sophisticated criminal enterprise. And it’s equally worth noting that its crimes could not have been committed without the aiding and abetting of physicians and university scientists.

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Connecticut Beaches Get Crummy Marks for 2011 Water Quality

by Categorized: Data, Environment, Health, Science Date:

As my colleague Josh Kovner reports, the Natural Resources Defense Council has ranked Connecticut the 26th worst state for water quality out of 30 states tested in 2011. The culprit: heavy rain and wind from Tropical Storm Irene, which churned up contaminants and led to a four-fold increase in beach-closing days.

Below is a database of the council’s main findings for each of the 73 beaches that line Connecticut’s Long Island Sound coastline. Click the arrows to sort a column or to filter for a particular name.

Click the map below the database to access the council’s page with more information on Connecticut beaches.

Claim Check: “Drinking Beer Makes You Smarter”

by Categorized: Claim Check, Education, Health, Media, Science Date:

“Beer makes men smarter: study” – NY Daily News

Here’s a near-guarantee: Do serious research on the intersection of drunkenness and cognitive abilities, and our soundbite society will mangle your findings to fit into irresistible headlines.

That, anyway, is the fate of three researchers at the University of Illinois, who set out to explore the link between inebriation and creativity – a link widely assumed since at least the days when Beethoven was throwing back bottles of wine with every meal.

The result: An interesting preliminary suggestion that intoxication may weaken “working memory control,” and that the resulting loss of focus and attention can permit the right hemisphere of the brain to elbow its way in with more diffuse and remote associations, which in turn can improve creative, but not analytical, problem solving.

The media’s take on that finding: “Beer makes you smarter.”

No matter that the study didn’t even involve beer. Continue reading

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot. (Or at Least Unseasonably Warm.)

by Categorized: Data, Science Tagged: , Date:

Ever wonder what it would be like to escape New England for the winter and spend the cold months in Northern Virginia? Well, if you live in the Hartford area, you already know. Below is a graph showing the average daily high temperature in Hartford since Dec. 1st  – that’s the blue line that bottoms out at a chilly 35 degrees. The jagged, faded red line shows where the thermometer actually topped out each day in Hartford this season, and the bold red curve smooths out the extremes to show the trend in temperatures.

That green line shows typical temperatures in Manassas, Va., whose residents, as the overlap between green and red shows, experience year after year the moderate temps we’ve had this season.

If that’s appealing to you, it’s about 375 miles of Interstate blacktop away. The downside: No home delivery of the Courant.

Claim Check: “Twitter is More Addictive Than Alcohol”

by Categorized: Claim Check, Science Date:

“Facebook and Twitter are more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol, study finds” – Fox News

The Twitterati are agog over a new study purportedly showing that human beings find the lure of scanning updates on Facebook or announcing through Twitter that they had Thai food for lunch is a more powerful compulsion than the addiction to tobacco or alcohol.

It’s an irresistible tale for headline writers and page-view desperados. But it’s not what the study found.

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