Day 64: Discovery lands, Texas simmers down and Yucatan’s water heads to the Midwest

Date posted: March 28, 2009
Posted in: 100 Days of Science | Creation/evolution | Greener living | Space science
Comments: 1 Comment
NASA's space shuttle Discovery made a successful landing Saturday afternoon. Credit: NASA

NASA's space shuttle Discovery made a successful landing Saturday afternoon. Credit: NASA

 

Pretty newsy science day, for a Saturday!

The space shuttle Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center with much well-deserved fanfare; the astronauts completed a 13-day mission including three space walks and full buildout (all four wings) of the International Space Station. They also brought home Sandra Magnus, who has spent four months in microgravity aboard the ISS. She was replaced by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. Also today, the space station welcomed two new crew members and a wealthy space tourist. All three flew up aboard a Russian Soyuz craft. 

The next shuttle to launch from Florida will be Atlantis on May 12, headed for the long-awaited Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. You can watch Discovery’s smooth touchdown here.

The Texas school board fiasco (I wrote about it in yesterday’s post) garnered a little more analysis in the blogosphere today. Phil Plait at BadAstronomy and the chron.com evolution blog at the Houston Chronicle both have day-after stories, with different tones. 

Oh! And it’s the day for Earth Hour, 8:30 p.m. in every time zone. I’m rushing to be off my computer by then and enjoy the early lights-out to catch up on some zzz’s. (Update 8:34 p.m.: I fell short. I’m proofing this post in the dark.) So, if you happen to be reading this between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m., for heaven’s sakes, tear yourself away and turn out your lights! 

Finally, damaging floods are just now beginning to ebb on the Red River, which forms the border of Eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. Thousands of people have been evacuated and at least two deaths have been reported. North Dakota State University and the U.S. Geological Survey  are both tracking the Red River.

The flood arrived just as Eos, the newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, unveiled an intriguing report on last year’s floods just east of the region that’s getting hammered now. The Midwest floods 0f 2008 plagued Minnesota (in different areas) and parts of eight other states, killed 24 people, injured 180 more and caused billions in damage. And according to the new Eos study, we can thank Texas, Mexico — heck, places all the way down to the Yucatan — for sending the water.

 

Grand Forks, North Dakota during the Red River's 1997 flood. Credit: USGS

Grand Forks, North Dakota during the Red River's 1997 flood. Credit: USGS

The paper is co-authored by Paul Dirmeyer and James Kinter III, of the Center for Ocean- Land- Atmosphere Studies in Calverton, Maryland.

“The flood, which also damaged the Midwest’s corn and soybean crops, was presaged by unusually heavy snow pack the preceding winter and by anomalously heavy rainfall during the spring,” they say. That’s expected. But the data also revealed a surprise: water vapor was fetched from areas as far as the Yucatan for the floods, in an unusual atmospheric circulation pattern that the authors have seen before, during similarly catastrophic flooding in the region in 1993.

“In both 1993 and 2008, the floods were characterized by a fetch of moisture originating from the south and southeast over Texas and northern Mexico, and extending along the western Gulf of Mexico and across the Yucatan Peninsula and into the Caribbean,” Dirmeyer and Kinter wrote.

“Also in both years, there was below average moisture coming from evaporation to the west,” specifically, the Rockies.  

But if you live in the southeastern United States, you know well that while the Midwest was under water last year, the southeast was struggling to come out of a drought. The paper found a telling connection: 

“The enhanced moisture flow from the south and drought across the southeastern United States is consistent with a strengthening or westward shift of the Atlantic subtropical ridge, a belt of high pressure sometimes called the “Bermuda High.”

Some of the eastern states — Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia among them — argue between themselves about water rights and a water future just like western states do. But I think they’re blaming the wrong crowd — the water they usually get from parts south is sprouting legs and walking over to the Midwest, and the problem appears to be systemic.

“It is clear that largescale floods such as those in the U.S. Midwest during 1993 and 2008 are part of an even larger-scale aberration in the water cycle that involves the atmosphere, the ocean, and the land across vast distances,” the authors wrote. 

Follow-up studies ought to be interesting, especially if they can explore whether this southeast-to-Midwest moisture shift is likely to become a fixture, or a regular visitor, to our country’s climate.

One Response to “Day 64: Discovery lands, Texas simmers down and Yucatan’s water heads to the Midwest”

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