Thoughts on the ocean, the environment, the universe and everything from nearly a mile high.

Panorama of The Grand Tetons From the top of Table Mountain, Wyoming © Alan Holyoak, 2011

Thursday, May 28, 2015

NSIDC Reports The Smallest Maximum Arctic Sea Ice Extent

The National Snow and Ice Data Center just announced a news release, that the winter of 2014-15 had the lowest maximum sea ice extent since satellite records were started in 1979.

So what? This is yet another indicator of the effects of ongoing warming of the planet as part of the current trend in global climate change.  If you look at the map above you may not think that the difference between the 1981-2010 average is that compelling, but the bottom line is that the winter maximum sea ice extents and the summer minimum sea ice extents in the Arctic continue to drop as the years go on.  

This means that we continue to slide farther and farther down the climate change chute - impacts have always been predicted to be most extreme and obvious in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet.  But if this is happening in the Arctic we should not be surprised to see other effects elsewhere...increasing temperatures, increasing intensities of storms, shifting weather and precipitation patterns, sea level rise, etc.

Oh, and a few more tidbits of information...the first time the Arctic maximum winter sea ice extent dropped below the 1981-2010 average was in 1995, and the last year the Arctic maximum sea ice extent matched or exceeded the 1981-2010 average was in 2003.  Every year since 2004 has had Arctic maximum winter sea ice extents below the long-term average...that's 11 years running! 

Click on the link below for more detailed information from the NSIDC:
Lowest Maximum Arctic Sea Ice Extent in Recorded History

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

One of the coolest things I've seen in a long time - animation of the break up of Pangea

Tectonic forces (plate tectonics) move plates of Earth's crust around slowly but constantly.  Occasionally all of the continents are shoved together forming a supercontinent.  Earth scientists conclude that this has happened a handful of times throughout history, and the most recent supercontinent was called Pangea.  It formed around 300 million years ago which geologically speaking was only just before the appearance of dinosaurs.  The map below shows the relative positions of the modern continents within Pangea.

("Pangaea continents" image courtesy of Kieff - File:Pangaea continents.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Pangea persisted as a supercontinent until about 200 million years ago when tectonic forces caused the continental plates to be shoved around and apart and moved them to their current locations.

There are many maps available that show where the different continents were at different times before, during, and after Pangea, but geoscientists recently released an extremely cool computer animation that shows the break-up of Pangea in one million year time increments.  You can run this animation by clicking the link below which will take you to the AAAS Science web site where there is also a short, readable article that explains what the animation shows.

Animation of the break-up of Pangea

Short readable article about the animation and the break-up of Pangea

My personal favorite part of the animation is at the very end where the Indian sub-continent collides with southern Asia - this is what formed the Himalayas...a mountain range that is still building.

Science rocks!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Moisture and motorcycles - a new reality

It's late January in eastern Idaho - the heart of winter.  Historically this meant snow, ice, and COLD.  My first experience with Idaho winters was in January 1977 when I rolled into Rexburg Idaho to attend Ricks College (since renamed BYU-Idaho).  I got off the bus and started the 6-block hike up the hill to campus.  The roads were literally sheet ice.  I remember this because when my suitcases got too heavy to carry I just leaned down and slid them along the ice all the way to campus (this was in the days before suitcases with wheels - what a great invention!).  Roads and sidewalks around here were usually snow/ice covered from after Thanksgiving through March.  There was so much snow in fact that some of the more adventurous (i.e., crazy/stupid) guys in the dorm would jump from the second floor landing into the deep snow below.  My roommates and I also used to get together at the end of the day and share the ice-related wipe-outs we saw during the day, and they happened every day on campus.

There is, however, a new climate reality.

There are of course still times when streets and sidewalks are snow/ice covered, but for the most part the streets and sidewalks are now mainly dry and bare for most of the winter.  This is even in a year where we are currently over 130% of our annual precipitation to date.  So, if the climate was as cold as it used to be we should have mountains of snow, but we don't.  Sure you can see snow around, but it's nothing extreme at all.  The reason we don't have much on the ground is that it keeps melting off.

I was surprised yesterday afternoon (1/26/2015) when I noticed someone zip by on a motorcycle.  I saw another person on a motorcycle this morning.  Motorcycles in January in Rexburg, Idaho!?  In days past you'd take a motorcycle out in January only if you had some kind of death wish.  Now, however, the roads are bare so if you bundle up it's completely doable.  I was doubly surprised yesterday when I saw that the weather forecast for today is RAIN (!!!???).  We are slated to reach temps in the low 40sF today and it may not even reach freezing overnight.  Now THAT'S CRAZY!

Welcome to the new reality.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Students and professors, how to use

According to

" (RMP) is a review site, founded in May 1999 by John Swapceinski, a software engineer from Menlo Park, California, which allows college and university students to assign ratings to professors and campuses of American, Canadian, and United Kingdom institutions. The site was originally launched as and converted to RateMyProfessors in 2001. was acquired in 2005 by Patrick Nagle and William DeSantis.[1] Nagle and DeSantis later resold in 2007 to Viacom's mtvU, MTV’s College channel.[2] is the largest online destination for professor ratings. The site has 8,000+ schools and over 1,000,000 ratings[3]".

If you are a student:

RMP is a great source of information about schools and professors.  The postings you will find there are from other students who have attended these schools or had these professors, and their experiences can help you decide which school to attend or which professor to take classes from.
When you select a professor you will see a page that includes this information at the top (this is my page):
Each page shows a professor's name and institution.  It also gives an overall summary of students' perception of their quality as a teacher in three areas: 1) helpfulness, 2) clarity, and 3) easiness.  These scores are on a scale of 0-5 (5 being best).  There is also a Hotness rating which is, well, how hot students think a professor is.  I am obviously not hot...ha!  Oh well, luckily my life doesn't center on how hot my students think I am.
Below this summary is a listing of all the summaries posted to date for the professor.  These reviews look like this (this happens to be the review at the top of the list as of this writing):

Each review indicates the class they took, how they thought the professor did in each of the three main areas listed above, as well as some additional comments if entered.

A word of warning:  

If you are a student you should always check to see many reviews the professor has.  If there are fewer than about 50 reviews I'd be wary of the summary data.  Even 50 postings may be too small a sample to get a statistically meaningful idea of a professor's quality.  Why do I say this?  In my experience there are primarily two groups of students who post to RMP on their own: Group 1 absolutely loves the professor, and Group 2 are students who hate the professor's guts.  For this reason small numbers of reviews for a professor can be heavily influenced by only a few very high or a few very low be careful.

A second word of warning:

The other thing to be aware of when you check out a professor is that RMP is an unmoderated site.  That is, there is no process that verifies that someone who has posted actually had that professor, that class, or even attends that school.  There are, believe it or not, web trolls who spend their time visiting sites like this and posting fraudulent reviews.  So again, even though summary data look convincing, take all information at unmoderated sites like this with a grain of salt.

If you are a professor:

Too many professors look at RMP as the enemy because without additional incentives only students who love them and especially those who hate them tend to post to RMP.

If you are a professor (as I am) there is a way to help students (and yourself) gain meaningful and reliable feedback via RMP.  The only way to do this is to boost the number of reviews you have, and to get them from as many students as possible.  Here's what I do:

I offer students a small amount extra credit to go to RMP at the end of the semester and post a review for me.  I tell them that I don't care what they put in their reviews (they are anonymous anyway) as long as they are honest and their review indicates their experience they had in my class and with me as a professor.  It's amazing what 5 points of extra credit can do.

If you do this you do this you can rapidly increase the number of reviews at your site.  Statistically, the more reviews you have from the entire cross-section of students in your classes, the closer the average scores for each category will reflect reality.  Also, larger numbers of reviews will damp out the effects of students who enter unusually high or unusually low scores.  There will of course still be students who love and hate us, but those extreme students will no longer be able to hold our RMP scores hostage.

At last count I had over 1100 reviews.  Once you reach this level one high or one low score will have no measurable effect on overall averages.  And this can all be yours for 5 points of extra credit!