A vast plain of poisonous green slime stretching to the horizon, bobbing gently on the waves -- that was the view of Lake Erie from Cleveland just a couple years ago. It could become a permanent feature if humans don't scramble to do something about it.
Take a closer look at the boxed-in area in the above image (larger version), captured by NASA's Aqua satellite in October 2011:
That's toxic cyanobacteria swirling in the lake waters north of Cleveland. At the time, this slippery stuff covered nearly one-fifth of Erie's surface, becoming the biggest bloom in the lake's recorded history. It looked and smelled awful, turned fishing into a hook-detangling nightmare, and killed untold numbers of marine creatures by hypoxia.
Observant people who've driven through Canada their entire lives may have noticed a shift in their natural surroundings. That is, they're greener: A huge portion of the country, roughly equal to the area of the entire United States, is sprouting thick, luscious new coats of trees and bushland.
Scientists monitoring the Northern American landmass from space have seen it happen over the past three decades, and now they've released data fingering climate change for the unusual boom in vegetation. Writing in Nature Climate Change, researchers with the NASA-funded study say that winters above the U.S.-Canada border are warming up quicker than the summers. That's causing the seasons to blend together, thawing out the ground for longer periods of time and supporting an eruption of "vigorously productive vegetation" covering about 3.5 million square miles.
This burgeoning green bandana wrapped around America's forehead is making the landscape surrounding Canadian cities look more like that of their American brethren. Here's how one of the researchers describes it:
The temperature and vegetation at northern latitudes increasingly resemble those found several degrees of latitude farther south as recently as 30 years ago. ...
"Arctic plant growth during the early 1980s reference period equaled that of lands north of 64 degrees north. Today, just 30 years later, it equals that of lands above 57 degrees north -- a reduction in vegetation seasonality of about seven degrees south in latitude," says co-author Prof. Terry Chapin, Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The change equates to a distance of approximately 480 miles southward.
How's that? Over at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Compton Tucker, who participated in the study, says that it's "like Winnipeg, Manitoba, moving to Minneapolis-Saint Paul in only 30 years."
Southern California’s Mount Wilson is a lonesome, hostile peak -- prone to sudden rock falls, sometimes ringed by wildfire -- that nevertheless has attracted some of the greatest minds in modern science.
George Ellery Hale, one of the godfathers of astrophysics, founded the Mount Wilson Observatory in 1904 and divined that sunspots were magnetic. His acolyte Edwin Hubble used a huge telescope, dragged up by mule train, to prove the universe was expanding. Even Albert Einstein made a pilgrimage in the 1930s to hobnob with the astronomers (and suffered a terrible hair day, a photo shows).
Today, Mount Wilson is the site of a more terrestrial but no less ambitious endeavor. Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and elsewhere are turning the entire Los Angeles metro region into a state-of-the-art climate laboratory. From the ridgeline, they deploy a mechanical lung that senses airborne chemicals and a unique sunbeam analyzer that scans the skies over the Los Angeles Basin. At a sister site at the California Institute of Technology, researchers slice the clouds with a shimmering green laser, trap air samples in glass flasks, and stare at the sun with a massive mirrored contraption that looks like God’s own microscope.
These folks are the foot soldiers in an ambitious interagency initiative called the Megacities Carbon Project. They’ve been probing L.A.’s airspace for more than a year, with the help of big-name sponsors like the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Keck Institute for Space Studies, and the California Air Resources Board. If all goes well, by 2015 the Megacities crew and colleagues working on smaller cities such as Indianapolis and Boston will have pinned down a slippery piece of climate science: an empirical measurement of a city’s carbon footprint.
If that doesn’t sound like something Einstein would scarf down energy bars and hoof up a mountain to check out, give it time. It promises to be a groundbreaking development in the worldwide fight against global warming.