Instead Of Cooler Temperatures Post-El Niño, Scientists Clock Record Highs In 2017

7:29 minutes

Photo by Lima Andruška/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the first six months of 2017 the second warmest on record. Top seed goes to 2016, thanks to an El Niño event that boosted global temperatures. But this year’s record-setting heat has come as a surprise to climate scientists, who predicted a cool-down the year following an El Niño event. Popular Science senior editor Sophie Bushwick joins Ira to discuss how the lingering warm weather is wreaking havoc on the North American climate. Plus, a model that estimates how fast a T-rex could run, and why people are very bad at identifying Photoshopped images.

[How lake fish are coping with pollution.]

Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, declared the first six months of 2017 the second warmest on record. Care to guess what’s in first place? 2016.

This year climate scientists expected things to cool down, but that hasn’t happened. Here to tell us more about it, as well as other short subjects in science is Sophie Bushwick, senior editor for Popular Science. Good to see you again, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: So what happened. This year is warmer? Cooler? What happened?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this year is actually cooler than 2016, but we were actually expecting that. So in 2016 we had El Nino, which is a weather phenomenon which tends to give us warmer temperatures. So you’d expect an El Nino year to be warmer.

But 2017, we don’t have El Nino and yet we still have these really high temperatures, high enough to be in second place in terms of hottest temperature year on record. And that’s a big problem, because that suggests that global warming is really pushing up the temperatures.

You can think of sort of El Nino compared to global warming as a ride on an escalator almost. So global warming is the escalator taking you up and El Nino is kind of like if you hopped up in place a couple of times. You’d get a little higher and then come back down. But global warming is the thing that’s gradually taking you up.

IRA FLATOW: So these warmer temperatures have been affecting weather patterns?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, they have. So Canada this year has been reporting more flooding than would be normal for them. Normally their weather kind of– a rainstorm comes in and then it goes back out again. But weather has lingered there more, which is causing flooding. And another issue we’re having is more frequent droughts in Montana and the Dakotas in the States.

And then, another thing that we’re seeing is a lot of severe wildfires. So right now, we’ve got wildfires in British Columbia in Canada, in California in the States, and in southern Europe. And so this is the type of nasty weather phenomenon that you can expect to see more frequently in a warmer planet.

IRA FLATOW: The new normal.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: The new normal.

IRA FLATOW: The new normal. Let’s move on a little bit. Not a great week for environmental news it seems. A study has estimated the amount of plastic that we humans have created over the last 50 years or so. And it’s a lot, isn’t it?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s 9.1 billion tons. That’s billion with a B. Basically, if you took all that plastic and, if you’re comparing it in weight, it’s like if you took 25,000 Empire State buildings made out of plastic.

IRA FLATOW: 25,000?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, that’s the weight. So if you laid those down in New York, it would cover Manhattan in I don’t know how–


IRA FLATOW: –how deeply you’d be walking, or whatever, living in it.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. And that’s the amount of plastic we produced entirely. It’s not necessarily the amount that’s in the world right now. But the problem is that of all this plastic we’re pumping out, we only recycle 9% of it.



IRA FLATOW: So it’s been increasing almost geometrically then over the last few years.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, they’re estimating we’ll be at 13 billion tons in 2050. It’s going to keep going up.

IRA FLATOW: And we see it washing up on those islands in the Pacific.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. It’s sort of clumping together into these garbage masses in the ocean. And you see on land getting into nature as well.

IRA FLATOW: So recycling is really not working for plastic.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, I think the problem with recycling is we’re not recycling enough and that even as we recycle we keep using more of it. So one thing that you can do is to stop getting as much plastic in the first place. Like if you’re shopping in the grocery store, bring a reusable bag so you don’t have to use up plastic bags. And maybe choose items that aren’t wrapped in plastic.

I love getting takeout, but as much as it hurts to say it, that stuff is really heavily packaged–

IRA FLATOW: It really is.


IRA FLATOW: Those dishes they put them in now, instead of little boxes.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, the little plastic clam shells.

IRA FLATOW: I use them for my saucers for my plants. At least I’m reusing them.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right that’s good. So yeah, if you are getting those, at least you can get more than one use out of them, instead of just getting more and more.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I have to get more plants.

Next, we have not one, but two studies measuring how fast a T-Rex may have been able to run. This was big news all over the web this week, wasn’t it?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. I think that we’re all very excited to decide whether a T-Rex would be able to catch us if it was chasing us.

IRA FLATOW: Of all the things we need. Well, it’s a nice diversion.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: In a Jurassic Park world, you know, you want to know these things. So the two studies used totally different methodologies though. So one looked at like the mechanics of how a T-Rex would have run. And they said, basically, a T-Rex would have done more of like a brisk walk, that if it tried to run it would put too much stress on its body.

But according to this study, a brisk walk for a T-Rex would be more than 12 miles per hour. And I mean, so that’s not nearly as fast as a sprinter, like Usain Bolt who can run at nearly 30 miles an hour at his fastest.

But compare it to a marathon runner. A winning marathon runner would be going faster than that. But like, I think a good marathoner would be doing about about 12 miles an hour. So being just barely even with the T-Rex, which isn’t good.

IRA FLATOW: Another study– so there were two studies on how fast they would run, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So the other study was basically looking at a lot of animals and saying, how does an animal’s size relate to how fast it can go. And so they were looking at like a curve, because you would expect the bigger animals to have bigger muscles that can run faster. But the fastest land animal’s cheetah, which isn’t that large. So the idea is that once you get past a certain size threshold all that extra size starts being too much weight to run as quickly.

IRA FLATOW: Are there other dinosaurs that did run really fast?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. We think velociraptors could have gone at about 34 miles an hour.

IRA FLATOW: 34? It’s like a horse.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, they could eat Usain Bolt really easily, just like, you know, velociraptors are sort of– you can picture them as terrifying chickens, sort of terrifying oversized chickens. Yeah, they could definitely run down even the fastest human. I think that’s a scarier prospect then the T-Rex.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s what happened in the movies.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. The movies were right. Who knew?

IRA FLATOW: Although, we’re not sure about the feathers and things that they had.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, the feathers are still up in the air, so to speak. But I think that I kind of like picturing them with feathers. I don’t know, if you’ve ever been attacked by a goose, those things are mean.

IRA FLATOW: They sure are.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Finally, we can’t let you go without mentioning Elon Musk, his tweet this week. He said he has permission from the government to build the Hyperloop, sort of a verbal permission.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So I’m glad that Elon Musk is excited about his Hyperloop, but he’s going to need a lot more than verbal permission. And he’s going to need a lot more than permission from just one government. So he’s proposing a Hyperloop that would connect New York, Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. And that would be able to deliver passengers from I think New York to DC in 29 minutes, which sounds great in theory.

But in order to dig the tunnel for that, he doesn’t just need permission from the federal government, he needs permission from the state governments. He needs to get approval from the locals whose property he’s going to be tunneling under. People need to do environmental impact studies.

And then, they’ve got above ground structures. Like how are you going to get out of the Hyperloop without some ground structure and an elevator?

IRA FLATOW: Look, you know, we can’t even get a bridge to Jersey going.


IRA FLATOW: Good luck with that one.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, I feel like he’s being maybe a little– maybe a whole lot too optimistic.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Sophie. Always good to talk to you.


IRA FLATOW: Sophia Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science.

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