Week 9, Day 3: Our Climate

New Mexico receives swings in precipitation, a lot of sun exposure, and great variation in temperature. (Photo by Craig Martin)

During week nine of Take It Outside, we are learning about our climate!

Here in Northern New Mexico, we have a challenging climate for life that includes variable precipitation, strong sun exposure, and large temperature swings. Learn more about our local climate, the factors that control it, and the organisms that are adapted to survive here in today’s post.

Blog Post:

PEEC founder and volunteer Chick Keller discusses our local climate in New Mexico, as well as how we can expect it to change with anthropogenic climate change. Read today’s blog post here.

Craft and Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

The Southwest has a unique climate that supports a diverse ecosystem. Learn more about the difference between weather and climate here. Each species that lives here is adapted to survive our harsh, dry climate.

Make a collage to celebrate all the plant and animal species that make the Southwest a beautiful place to call home! Start by going on a nature walk. Observe and collect different natural things you find along the way. When you get home, make a collage with your collection! Share it with us by emailing takeitoutside@peecnature.org or by tagging us on Facebook or Instagram.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Coyotes are iconic creatures of the desert, but these animals still need access to fresh water to survive. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

Examine some of the specific adaptations that allow organisms to live in our climate. Some of the conditions present in our climate include dry air, large seasonal and daily temperature variations, bright sun, strong winds, and low moisture.

For plants, you might notice:

  • Small leaves have less surface area to preserve moisture. A trade-off is that they can’t produce as much sugar for the plant to grow.
  • Narrow, upright leaves don’t shred easily in high winds.
  • Hairy or fuzzy leaves can trap moisture near the surface of the plant to insulate it from temperature variations.
  • Waxy leaves can help keep moisture from evaporating, and reflect some sunlight.
  • Succulents have shallow root systems and water-storage capacity in their leaves and stems that allow them to thrive during infrequent rains.

For animals, you might notice:

  • Burrowing in the ground allows many species to shelter against large temperature variations.
  • Some animals find hospitable microclimates, like shady spots under rocks or trees, or gravitate toward riparian areas, to take advantage of the variations in our landscape.
  • Some animals shed their thick winter coats for summer. The Abert’s squirrel has a thinner coat and smaller ear tufts in the summer than in winter.
  • Birds can dilate blood vessels in their legs to transfer heat out of their blood to the environment.
  • Some animals, like pocket mice, do not need to drink water, and get all of their needed water as a byproduct of metabolizing food. Others, like packrats, eat juicy critters and plants for water. Still others, like coyotes, need access to fresh water.

Other Resources:

  • The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a bit of a different climate and ecosystem than ours here in Northern New Mexico, but the organisms that live in the Sonora Desert have similar adaptations to their dry climate. Find out more here.
  • Learn more about the plants and animals of the American Southwest from the National Park Service.
  • If you’d like to explore how birds could be impacted by climate change, check out the National Audubon Society’s Survival by Degrees project.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our climate this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn about paleoclimates of New Mexico!

How Will Climate Change Impact the Pajarito Plateau?

Monsoon season tends to last from mid-June to late September in New Mexico. (Photo by Craig Martin)

By Chick Keller

With the advent of human caused climate change, there has been much speculation about what will happen in the Southwest. Will there be droughts that will change our environment? Are there already signs?

New Mexico is geographically situated in a curious position. Many winter storms come from the northwest, but turn east just north of our state. This is because of the location of the jet stream, which has come south and moves north and south in a weekly rhythm. However, there are times when the moisture comes from the southwest and we get large snowstorms. In summer the jet stream retreats north to Canada, so no west-to-east traveling storms happen. Instead, the timing of the start of our moisture-giving “monsoon” season is dependent on a particular setup of high and low pressure systems. These are in turn dependent upon what is happening in the Pacific Ocean.

There are two major cycles in the ocean: the 20 – 30 year (variable) Pacific Decadal Cycle, and the shorter, 5 – 10 year El Niño/La Niña cycles called “El Niño Southern Oscillation — ENSO.” The Pacific decadal cycles are felt in the Southwest as alternating wet and dry decades. The ENSO alternates warm and cold water in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific off the coast of Peru. When warm (El Niño), the Southwest gets lots of moisture both in winter and summer. When cold (La Niña), it becomes dry. So during the dry phase of the Pacific cycle, if there is a La Niña, it gets really dry in New Mexico.

Global climate change has an additional effect. During the summer monsoon season there is a high pressure region that sits still over Oklahoma and a corresponding low pressure region over Nevada. These cause moisture air to be drawn up from the Gulf of California and nearby Pacific Ocean and also from the Gulf of Mexico. Global warming often reverses these systems — high over Nevada and low over Oklahoma. These both block moist air from the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, and the monsoon is delayed. In recent years, this has been happening more often and our monsoon rains have come later and produced less than normal moisture.

This area has been the scene of culture-changing droughts in the past, particularly the migration-causing 12th century drought that emptied out Chaco Canyon and the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, and established the native cultures along the Rio Grande.

Most computer simulations and climatologists suggest that warmer temperatures will result in more droughts and more drying of soils. It would be as if the deserts of Mexico migrated north. To counteract this, more precipitation would be needed. This might actually happen, because warmer air holds more moisture and so our monsoons might actually bring more rain. The downside is that it will probably come in more intense storms and much of it will run off into the flooded streams and so be lost to the land.

Warming climates may impact the American Pika, a species that lives at high-elevations and is sensitive to high temperatures. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

But the warming might cause other climate changes over the Pacific that would counter this.  For now the prediction is for a drier climate on the Pajarito Plateau.

A note about signs of climate change. There has been little observed change in our native plants, but the growing season seems to have come earlier by one to two weeks. Some southern birds have drifted north. The Acorn Woodpecker was unknown here until the 1980s, but is common now. There are concerns that warming conditions might exterminate the American Pika from high-elevation places like the Jemez Mountains.

Various community science and volunteer-led efforts can help us track how climate change is impacting our local flora and fauna. For instance, PEEC volunteer Craig Martin personally records early and late wildflower sightings; eBird tracks time distribution for bird species in the county (and around the world!); and other community science efforts like Butterflies and Moths of North America, iNaturalist, and Journey North are used by both enthusiasts and scientists to gather data on the sightings of various plants and animals.

You can help our community better understand how climate change is impacting our local species by learning to use and contributing sightings on one or more of these platforms. Be sure to also check out PEEC’s interest groups if you’d like to join in the local conversation that is happening within our community about plants, birds, butterflies, and more.

Week 9, Day 2: The Atmosphere

The atmosphere on Earth makes our planet uniquely able to support human life! This shot by the International Space Station crew shows a crescent moon through the top of Earth’s atmosphere. (Photo by NASA Earth Observatory)

During week nine of Take It Outside, we are learning about our climate!

Earth’s atmosphere is crucial to maintaining a livable climate, and today we explore the part it plays in supporting life, and how changes humans are making to our atmosphere affects our climate.

Upcoming Event:

Join us tonight at 7 PM for a live-streamed composting summit! Local experts will discuss different approaches to home composting, as well as composting proposals for the community. Learn how to get started with composting or how to expand your current setup at this event. Find out more and register here.

Blog Post:

Atmospheric scientist and McCurdy Charter School sixth grade teacher Christy Wall discusses how our atmosphere allows life to flourish on Earth. Read her post here.

Craft:

Convection currents in our oceans and atmosphere work to transfer heat throughout the planet. Create a simple convection model to represent how warm air can be transported to cooler areas of the Earth. See instructions here. Consider how this movement of heat affects our climate!

 

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Look for soaring birds, like this Red-tailed Hawk, that are riding on thermals in our skies. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

Look for signs of convection in the atmosphere around you. You can’t see air, but there are a few phenomena that make convection in air visible:

  • The formation of cumulus clouds. The sun shines on and heats the ground, which then heats pockets of air above it. These pockets of heated air rise until they are cool enough to condense into clouds. Clouds form above pockets of warm, rising air, whereas clear blue patches between clouds represent areas where cool air is sinking. Learn more about the formation of convective clouds in this short video.
  • Large birds take advantage of rising columns of air, or thermals, to help lift them into the sky. Look for Turkey Vultures, ravens, and hawks circling higher and higher as the sun starts to heat the ground and air begins to rise.

 

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Explore the greenhouse effect outside. Find a clear container, and place it upside down on the ground in a sunny spot. Wait a few minutes, and then lift the container slightly and put your hand under it. Can you feel a difference in temperature compared to the air outside the container?

Try this in different areas. Does the air heat up more if you put the container over light-colored or dark-colored ground? Does it make a difference if there are plants or no plants under the container?

If you have a thermometer and want to try an experiment with increasing the amount of greenhouse gases present in your container, follow the instructions on this page. We’re curious to see what you find out!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our climate this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn more about our climate!

Exploring Our Atmosphere

Our atmosphere makes it possible for humans to live on Earth and experience beautiful views like this one, which was taken at Valle de los Posos. (Photo by Craig Martin)

By Christy Wall, Atmospheric Scientist and McCurdy Charter School Sixth Grade Teacher

The sun makes it possible for us to live on Earth, and radiation from the sun is what delivers heat to Earth. But Mars isn’t that much farther from the Sun than we are. What makes Earth’s climate suitable for life? Our unique atmosphere!

What is an atmosphere? It’s the blanket of air that surrounds a planet. Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than our planet, which is a major factor that makes the Red Planet colder than Earth.

Earth’s unique atmosphere makes the planet suitable for life. Though Mars isn’t that much farther away from the Sun, it has a much thinner atmosphere than our planet. (Photo by NASA/ESA)

Earth’s atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen and oxygen. Our atmosphere is critical to holding in heat from the sun and making Earth a place where we can live. Our atmosphere is pretty special. It has different layers, kind of like a cake. The lowest layer contains the oxygen that we breathe. Other layers protect us from UV rays from the sun.

The pressure of our atmosphere allows liquid water to exist on Earth’s surface. Besides being important for life, having liquid water has a big impact on Earth’s climate because liquid water allows us to have clouds. Clouds can reflect radiation from the sun, or act to trap it and keep Earth’s surface warmer. This is why cloudy nights are warmer than clear nights.

While the atmosphere on Earth is primarily composed of oxygen and nitrogen, there are many other chemicals floating around us. Some of these are called “greenhouse gases,” which means that they help keep the planet warm enough for us to live on. Imagine a greenhouse for plants in the winter: the glass traps heat and allows plants to live even when it’s really cold out. Space is about as cold as it gets! Earth’s atmosphere is like the glass in a greenhouse. Gases like water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide absorb radiation and act a little like a blanket, keeping our planet warm enough for us.

The names of these greenhouse gases probably sound familiar. All of these gases occur naturally in the atmosphere. For example, carbon dioxide can be released by volcanic eruptions. Methane can be released from wetlands. Bacteria in soil can create nitrous oxide. Some of these greenhouse gases are also produced by human activity, like the burning of fossil fuels. When greenhouse gases are produced by people, we call them “anthropogenic.” As more anthropogenic greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, more heat is trapped, causing warming overall, which we refer to as “climate change.”

Climate change is a tricky thing to explain. Many people call it “global warming,” but as the amount of these anthropogenic greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide and methane) increases in the atmosphere, it’s causing more than just warmer temperatures. The way that moisture moves in the atmosphere is changing, making some areas rainier and others drier.

Many areas, including New Mexico, are seeing fewer nights with temperatures below freezing, which has a big impact on plants. Even if the temperature warms just a little, it means that we may have more rain than snow during the winter. When snow falls in the mountains, it is stored in the snowpack. As the snow melts in the summer, water is released into rivers. If it rains instead of snowing, the water isn’t stored in the snowpack, which means we have less water for irrigation or other uses in the summer.

The good news is that there are things that we can do to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Climate change is caused by an increase of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so we can help by finding ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we emit, and by finding ways to remove excess greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

To reduce emissions, we can do things like reduce waste in our personal and organizational lives. See how PEEC is doing this here. On a more public level, we can advocate for moving to energy sources that do not release carbon into the atmosphere. Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities has a goal to provide carbon-neutral electricity by 2040.

To remove excess gases in the atmosphere, we can plant and nurture trees and other plants, which use atmospheric carbon dioxide to grow, and we can explore technological solutions to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere.

The Sun’s Motion

By Akkana Peck

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, right?

This is true, but we’re not actually seeing the sun move. When the sun rises and sets, you’re seeing the effect of the earth rotating on its axis.

But put that aside for a moment. The sun does rise in the east and set in the west … but not always in the same place, and not always at the same time. And those changes are what causes our seasons, and a whole host of other weather phenomena.

The Earth’s axis is tilted about 23½ degrees. That means that as we make our yearly trip around the sun, part of the time Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, and other times it’s tilted away.

Diagram of the seasons for the Earth’s northern hemisphere. (Graphic by Akkana Peck)

When we’re tilted toward the sun, that means the sun rises earlier, sets later, and gets a lot higher in the sky. So it’s hotter, and we call that summer. When we’re tilted away from the sun, in winter, the sun stays lower and there are fewer hours of daylight, and so we’re a lot colder.

And those seasonal changes in how much sunlight we get cause all sorts of other effects — like ocean currents, the motion of the jet stream, and the seasonal warming that causes our crazy spring winds.

North and South Wanderings

This “solargraph” photo was taken through a pinhole camera and shows the sun’s path over the course of a year. (Photo by Elekes Andor)

The sun is farthest north on the summer solstice. This year, that’s June 20, and at noon the sun will be 77 degrees up (that’s 1 PM on our clocks due to Daylight Saving Time). We’ll have 14½ hours of daylight on that day.

On December 21, the winter solstice, the sun will only make it up to 30 degrees above the southern horizon at noon, and it will only stay up for 9½ hours.

This “solargraph” taken from Budapest used a pinhole camera (with actual old-fashioned film!) to capture the sun’s path through the sky over a whole year. You can see how much its path changes in summer versus winter.

 

Where Does the Sun Rise and Set?

Notice in the solargraph that the sun’s rising and setting position also changes over the year. It doesn’t rise exactly due east, or set exactly due west, except on the spring and fall equinoxes.

You can see this for yourself at home. Make a note of where the sun rises or sets today against a local landmark, like the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or Jemez Mountains if you can see them from your house. Then check again a week from today, and again in a month. How much does it change?

Be careful when doing this: don’t ever look at the sun directly, since it’s bright enough to hurt your eyes even when it’s rising or setting. Check it just as the last bit of the sun is disappearing behind the Jemez, or better yet, take a photo as it’s setting (but don’t look through the camera’s viewfinder, if it has one; just use the LCD screen).

The Analemma

There’s more to the sun’s motion than just north and south. Because the Earth’s orbit isn’t a perfect circle, sometimes we move faster in our orbit, sometimes slower. So sometimes the sun seems to lag a little behind, or race a little ahead, of where you’d think it should be — for instance, it might reach its highest point at 12:17 PM, or 11:46 AM, instead of exactly 12:00 PM noon (or 1 PM MDT).

If you pointed a wide-angle camera at the sky and took a photo every day at the same time over a whole year, sometimes the sun would be a little farther left, sometimes a little farther right, as well as moving north and south. You’d get a picture like a figure-eight, or a bowling pin:

This picture shows a morning analemma. (Photo by Giuseppe Donatiello)

That’s called the analemma. You may have seen it on globes of the Earth. The top of the figure-eight is near the summer solstice, when the sun is high; the bottom is near the winter solstice. If you take your photos at noon, the figure eight will be roughly vertical; if you take it in the morning or evening, it will be tilted, as in this morning analemma by Giuseppe Donatiello.

Take a closer look at the sun through today’s craft and outdoor challenges!