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New book by paleontologists Naish and Barrett is a treat for dinosaur fans

December 19, 2016 Leave a comment

naish-and-barrett-dinosaurs-how-they-lived-and-evolved-oct-2016

Those of us who love dinosaurs know that there is something poetic about these animals – the spectacular size of some,  their amazing variety, the mysteries of their long life on this planet . We still feel a thrill when we envision the fantastic beasts and we sometimes find ourselves drifting into a reverie in which we imagine the world under their 140 million-year domination. We can almost see, in our mind’s eye, the graceful long-necked sauropods nibbling the trees and shrubs, the stalking bipedal, sharp-toothed theropods tall and small, and the horned, crested, and armored herbivores wandering the landscape.

Our endless willingness to imagine the great beasts, and our persistent desire to learn more about them, is catered to by a growing variety of mass market books that aim to help us understand their biology and the ecosystems in which they lived. One of the best recent additions to this library, by the British paleontologists Darren Naish (author of the popular Tetrapod Zoology blog) and Paul Barrett (of London’s Natural History Museum), stands out for its depth and its wide-ranging look at dinosaurs’ anatomy, behavior, diversity, and evolution.

The book, Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved, starts with a look at some basic biological principles and the history of dinosaur discoveries. Readers are provided a cogent overview of Earth’s geology and climate during the Mesozoic era, the value of cladistics as a tool to make sense of dinosaur variety, and the place of dinosaurs in the larger group of animals known as archosaurs.

Naish and Barrett then move on to a helpful explanation of the relationships among dinosaur species and a detailed look at dinosaur skeletal systems.

This discussion shines for its skillful and picturesque descriptions of the major dinosaur groups. The authors focus not just on the famous Saurischians and Ornithiscians; they take the reader into a just-deep-enough examination of the clades into which these groups are divided.

In the third section of the book Naish and Barrett shift to an examination of scientists’ current understanding of the deeper aspects of dinosaur biology: their diets, their mating habits, the intricacies of their movement, and their social behaviors. This part of the book is a smorgasbord of insights into how fossils, both trace and body, teach us about the structure of an animal’s life.

Next we are presented with a thorough discussion of modern dinosaurs. Here Naish and Barrett not only delve into the ways in which avian anatomy resembles that of their coelurosaur cousins, but also explain the current understanding of feather origins and the genesis of flight.

In the book’s final section Naish and Barrett, after a review of the impact by an asteroid or comet and its consequences for dinosaurs and their world, highlight another possible contributor to the Mesozoic terminus: active volcanoes around the planet.

The authors explain that, notwithstanding the ecological catastrophe that essentially ended their long reign over the planet’s biosphere (an incident known as the K-Pg event), dinosaurs may have been experiencing both climate change and a loss of diversity at the time it occurred. They take pains to emphasize that, contrary to popular myth, some dinosaurs did survive the end of the Cretaceous period. We know them, of course, as the birds.

Gracing the text are numerous photographs, graphs, and computer-generated reconstructions. Naish and Barrett did not, though, include citations to scientific papers or a bibliography.

Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved is ideal for readers that have some basic familiarity with the biological sciences, though detailed knowledge is not required to enjoy the book.

Published by Smithsonian Books and carrying a cover price of $29.95, the book is a worthy and entertaining read for all of us who continue to be fascinated by the dinosaurs.

NOTE: This reviewer obtained a copy of Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved on loan from the Arapahoe Library District. He was not asked by any publisher or author to prepare this review and has not been compensated for it.

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November 2015 is second-warmest in known history, NASA says, as this year stays on track for record warmth

December 19, 2016 Leave a comment

November 2016 was the second-warmest November in recorded history, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies announced last week, with an average global temperature that was less than one-tenth of a degree Celsius lower than the record-setter of 2015.

Last month was also 0.95 degrees Celsius (1.71 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the average November during the years between 1951-1980 and kept Earth on the path to the warmest year the planet has experienced in the 136 years in which consistent weather records have been maintained.

November 2015 was 1.02 degrees Celsius warmer than the mean for the month during that 29-year period.

gistemp-anomaly-nov-2016-courtesy-nasa-giss-schmidt
This graphic shows that November 2016 (shortened line) experienced temperatures well above the norm for the past 136 years.
Graphic courtesy NASA, Goddard Institute for Space Studies; graphic by Gavin Schmidt.

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration announced Monday that, according to its calculations, November 2016 was the fifth-warmest in recorded history. NOAA said that last month’s average global temperature was 0.72 degrees Celsius (1.31 degrees Fahrenheit) above the norm for the month.

NOAA’s assessment of the month’s place in climate history is based on 122 years of records.

As the year approaches its end, there is little doubt that it will be the warmest known in either 122 or 136 years. NOAA’s statement explained that this year’s average temperature to date is 0.94 degrees Celsius (1.69 degrees Fahrenheit) above the mean for the past 122 years, while NASA’s methods indicate that the year-to-date mean temperature is 1.02 degrees Celsius (1.84 degrees Fahrenheit) above that for the period 1951-1980.

departures-from-average-nov-2016-percentile
The mean air temperature over Earth’s land and sea surfaces was highest over portions of North America and eastern Asia during November, while central Asia experienced a month that was cooler than usual.
Graphic courtesy NOAA, National Centers for Environmental Information.

Earth’s Arctic region has been the part of the planet where warmth has been most pronounced this year.

NOAA’s 2016 Artic Report Card, which the agency released earlier this month, indicated that the extent of summer sea ice in the region this year was tied with 2007 for the second-lowest since 1979 and that average surface air temperatures there in the year that ended on Sept. 30 were the highest since at least 1900.

The mean air temperature in the Arctic has warmed by 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1900, a pace that is twice as fast as that experienced by the rest of Earth.

arctic-air-temperatures-oct-2015-sept-2016-courtesy-noaa
The Arctic experienced record warmth between Oct. 2015-Sept. 2016.
Graphic courtesy NOAA.

The continental United States experienced warmer temperatures than normal for the first 11 months of this year from coast-to-coast and from northern border to southern border. This graphic, prepared by the National Centers for Environmental Information, shows that no region in the mainland U.S. experienced an average temperature that is lower than the mean of the past 122 years:

mean-temperature-percentiles-u-s-graphic-courtesy-noaa-national-centers-for-environmental-information
This map shows the deviations from mean temperature across the continental United States during November 2016.
Graphic courtesy NOAA, National Centers for Environmental Information.

NOAA’s new weather satellite reaches geostationary orbit; promises improvement in weather forecasting

December 2, 2016 Leave a comment

goes-r-satellite-logoThe nation’s most advanced weather satellite has reached geostationary orbit and will soon begin helping the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration improve weather forecasting.

Capable of imaging the entire western hemisphere of Earth every 15 minutes and the continental United States every five minutes, GOES-16 is expected to improve NOAA’s ability to predict and track thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes and anticipate solar activity that can impact human activities on Earth.

“The next generation of weather satellites is finally here,” NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan said in a statement released after the satellite was launched Nov. 19. “GOES-R is one of the most sophisticated Earth-observing platforms ever devised.”

Sullivan was referring to the generic name for the series of satellites to be launched in the next several years, of which GOES-16 is the first.

The key to GOES-16’s likely impact on meteorology is the satellite’s Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI).

Basically a sophisticated photography instrument, ABI will observe Earth across 16 bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. That is an improvement from weather satellites currently in orbit, which can only make use of five spectral bands.

ABI will also provide a four-fold increase in image resolution and transmit data back to Earth five times faster than is possible with current satellites.

GOES-16 is also equipped with a device that permits the mapping of lightning. The Geostationary Lightning Mapper detects short duration changes in near-infrared radiation, which indicates the presence of atmospheric electrical activity. GLM will operate over North America and South America and the marine areas immediately adjacent to those continents.

A device on the satellite known as Extreme Ultraviolet and X-Ray Irradiance Sensors will detect solar flares, which will in turn assist ground-based agencies in preserving communication and navigation capability when the flares occur.

Another instrument, the Solar Ultraviolet Imager, will allow for observation of other solar activity such as coronal holes and coronal mass ejections. These events can subject satellites and even the International Space Station to risks of increased radiation and disrupt Earth-based communications, navigation, and transmission of electricity.

The GOES-16 satellite is powered by a solar array.

Clifford F. Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, said that the potential of the GOES-16 satellite to improve accuracy of forecasts is significant. He explained that the challenge will be to make the most optimal use of the data it provides.

“How do you use the sensor information to create a physically consistent three-dimensional simulation of the atmosphere? That’s something that can be worked on.”

Weather satellites have been crucial to meteorology since the first, TIROS-1, was launched by NASA on April 1, 1960. Since then countries including China, India, Japan, and Russia have joined the United States in building an extensive network of weather satellites in orbit.

tiros-1-image-of-earth-courtesy-nasa
TIROS-1 transmitted the first televised image of Earth on April 1, 1960.
Image courtesy NASA.

Geostationary weather satellites, which permit constant observation of large areas on Earth’s surface, premiered in December 1966 when ATS-1 was sent skyward. In the 1970s NOAA began deployment of the GOES series of satellites, which work in pairs to observe atmospheric conditions from the west coast of Africa to the western Pacific Ocean.

Altogether the U.S. has sent at least 58 weather satellites into orbit.

The first in NOAA’s new Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series, the 2,800 kilogram-sized GOES-16 is now 35,800 kilometers away from Earth.

GOES-16, which earned its name when it reached stationary orbit above the equator on Nov. 29, is designed for ten years of operation. It will commence observations and data transmission next year, after testing of its instruments is completed.

The launch of GOES-16 does not address an ongoing concern among meteorologists that a gap in weather satellite coverage at the planet’s poles might occur. A 2016 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that the risk that an existing satellite in polar orbit might fail could leave a lapse of coverage before the launch of a new spacecraft, JPSS-1, in March 2017.

 

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