The Eastward Wobble, The Dance of the Earth

In April of this year NASA released findings related to the Earth’s melting ice sheets. Often when the gringa things about climate change, warming temperatures and melting ice sheets, the only thing I consider is how sea levels will rise. It never occurred to me that ice sheet disintegration may result in a more wobbly world.

Think about the traditional children’s toy, the spinning top. It’s a bit like our world. As it slows its spin it begins to wobble. As ice sheets melt and the balance of Earth begins to shift, we will, indeed, experience a global wobble. Scientists officially define this as a “periodic wobble and drift of the poles”. All the gringa wants to know is, “What exactly does this mean for me? Am I going to fall on my patootie trying to walk to my car?”

NASA asserts that over the past sixteen years Antarctica and Greenland, combined, have averaged about 400 billion tons of ice loss annually. Before the year 2000, as Earth spun on its axis it had a gentle drift toward Canada (westward). Because of ice loss, now the drift is about 75 degrees in the opposite direction, eastward. This happens because as ice converts to water and moves elsewhere, the distribution of Earth’s mass changes. What this means exactly is that the location of the North and South poles will change. In other words, Earth’s axis is relocating.

Now, the traditional location of Earth’s North Pole may have to be renamed to the Northeastern Pole. Earth’s axis is like an invisible pin stuck through the Earth from North to South. The Earth spins on the tip of the pin, rotating with a slight wobble that is normal. However, if the geographic location of the Poles change, complete topographical and satellite telemetry systems have to be adjusted to accommodate this change. For the average person, this means that your GPS is going to deliver you to the wrong place!

Scientists have long known that the Poles shift by a few centimeters from time to time as a part of Earth’s natural climate adjustment cycles. But what we are dealing with now is much more dramatic. Experts estimate that the shift is averaging about ten centimeters Eastward annually. Our great-great-grandchildren may have to adjust Christmas stories to have Santa Claus living in Russia or Norway.

Although scientists understand that as ice continues to melt the Earth will adjust by shifting its axis to the place where it has lost mass, even their best predictions are really just a guess. This is an extremely complex problem. It’s not just melting ice sheets that affect the process but also loss of groundwater in above ground reservoirs and underground aquifers (which underground aquifers cannot be accurately measured) as well as glacier melt and glacier movement. Many glaciers float about the ocean as they please.

The Earth’s ice and water storage formula affects polar drift. Yet many of the variables in the formula cannot be measured or can change their individual affect. So, scientists are left scratching their heads, doing the best with what they’ve got, and hazarding their best guess on what humanity can expect.

Ice melt is not the only thing that can bump the North Pole to a different location. Enormous earthquakes and devastating tsunamis can do the job as well. Indonesia’s great earthquake moved the North Pole eastward by about 2.5 centimeters and also lengthened Earth’s day cycle by 2.68 microseconds. No wonder I’ve been so tired lately! The gringa is filled with wonder at how humans remain at the mercy of nature despite all of our technological advances.


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How Climate Change Affects Vacation Priorities

So, when the climate change poop hits the fan, who is going to be in for the worst ride? What parts of the world should I vacation at now because they will be uninhabitable in the future? Exactly where will be the safest place for the gringa and the caveman to diddle away their golden years?

Well, we better get busy and visit all the beach hotspots that are alive and kicking right now. With sea levels rising, the coastal cabanas of today will be reef material tomorrow. And, considering that climate change creates erratic and extreme weather patterns such as: heavy rain here, drought there, devastating tornadoes everywhere; well, there is no uniform model of what’s going to change where or when. The only concrete expectation right now is what models predict about low elevation islands and coastal beachlands. They are pretty much going to be history, some maybe within my lifetime.

Other areas scientists expect to change dramatically are regions that have a delicate ecosystem balance and are already experiencing hyper-sensitivity to environmental stressors. These areas include:

  • Arctic, specifically the tundra region
  • Boreal forest belt – This is the conifer forest that stretches across North America, particularly dense in the Pacific Northwest
  • Tropical Rainforest
  • Alpine regions
  • Steppes of Asia and the Americas
  • Prairies of Asia and the Americas
  • Deciduous forests of South America and Australia

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the Earth. The permafrost layer is melting. Glaciers are getting smaller and sea ice is disintegrating. The wildlife of the Arctic will probably be a loss to the world. They depend on a habitat that is going to grow too warm to support their needs. The indigenous people of this region will experience a loss of their culture that is strongly dependent on the wildlife and natural geography. The humans will have the adaptation advantage that the wildlife and fauna do not have. But the loss of their culture is still something to mourn over.

The boreal forests of North America are important carbon sponges for the earth. What will a degree or two warmer mean? As temperatures warm the center of the United States, the boreal forest will shift northward. Predictive models sees the United States losing its boreal forest as it relocates to Canada and Alaska. So, we won’t lose them, they will relocate. That’s good news in the aspect that at least the Earth will retain a critical carbon filter.

Researchers in tropical rainforests mark trees and track them for years, measuring them to see how they are responding to climate change. A group in the Bolivian Andes are studying a swath of diverse trees and plants that thrive in a limited temperature range. As temperatures rise, so do the trees. New, baby trees are growing uphill. Just as the North American model predicted a forest migration, the same is expected of the tropical rainforests. They will abandon the lowland jungle regions and migrate up the mountainsides, seeking cooler temperatures.

Alpine regions are going to experience the same forest creeping phenomena. As glaciers continue to recede, alpine plants will continue to move upwards looking for cooler temperatures and water. However, eventually, when all the glacier water has melted and run off or evaporated, this critical component of the annual water budget will be gone forever. Plants and trees dependent upon it will eventually be extinct. So Alpine ecosystems will not only migrate, they will migrate to a slow death.

The upside of forest migration is that the Earth is trying to compensate and save herself. The downside is that the migration process is slower than the warming process. This means there will still be catastrophic loss of tropical rainforest and alpine habitat. This will affect the wildlife dependent on these ecosystems as well as their indigenous people.

Experts predict the possibility of losing over half of the steppe habitats due to the effects of climate change. They are not modeling a migration of fauna, but a loss. Steppes are critical grazing areas. As the steppes experience habitat loss, growing smaller, overgrazing occurs on the remaining areas. The effects then are coupled: climate change related drought and overgrazing. Things look dire for the future of the steppes and the animals and shepherds and ranchers who depend on them. The steppes could become the Earth’s future Sahara’s.

Unlike a conifer boreal forest or tropical rainforest that are green year round, a deciduous forest becomes barren in the winter season as the trees lose their leaves. Deciduous forests exist in tropical and temperate climates. Climate change models predict warmer winters affecting deciduous forests. This could lead to tree loss from pests and disease. In regions where devastating drought occurs, there will be higher tree loss. When a tree dies in the forest it also becomes fuel. In regions experiencing drought related tree loss, the dry conditions and increased fuel of more dead trees makes conditions ripe for voracious wildfires. So, if the drought or the bugs don’t wipe out the deciduous forests, the wildfires probably will.

The gringa thinks the list of vacation priorities should go something like this:

  • Arctic expedition
  • Steppe pack-mule trip
  • Deciduous and Alpine forest camp outs
  • Beach parties around the world
  • Tropical rainforest excursion
  • Bigfoot safari in the boreal forests of the Pacific Northwest

I don’t think climate change is going to sound the death knell for planet Earth and mankind. The gringa does believe it will be the end of many species of animals and plants that are with us today. It is also highly likely that entire cultures will be wiped out when they lose the habitats they rely upon. And usually species loss does not mean a gaping hole is left behind. Usually, another species fills the gap or a species evolves and adapts. So, the key word to focus on is “change”. It’s climate “change” not climate “loss”. But the change is as significant as the past disappearances of entire civilizations such as the Maya or entire animal classes like the dinosaurs.

At this point, I believe the consensus among scientists is that we have passed the tipping point. There is no going back and “fixing” things. We simply have to ride the lightning and deal with it. So, if a person is able and so inclined, they need to enjoy the world as we know it today and document it for the children of the future.



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Amazing Grace and the Conveyor Belt

Is there a way to stem the tide of sea level rise due to climate change? I mean, if we can’t build a seawall around the coast of every continent and island, what other option is there other than an eventual mass human migration inland? Well, NASA thinks there very well may be a solution.

The Earth may be saving herself. Climate change researchers have been collecting data from NASA satellites to determine where all this extra liquid water from melted ice sheets and glaciers is ending up. It seems the Earth has absorbed over three trillion tons of water (that’s about the equivalent of what’s in Lake Huron) that are replenishing depleted lakes and underground aquifers. Now, this is great news but not a permanent fix. Researchers estimate this temporary band-aid will slow sea level rise by about twenty percent. Earth is buying us Earthlings some more time to get our you-know-what together and fix this mess we have created.

So, how does this “band-aid” work? The Earth’s regular water budget is provided by annual amounts of water evaporated from the oceans. This becomes precipitation that returns to the Earth through rainfall or snow. It then recycles back into the oceans as runoff or through rivers. As mankind’s use of groundwater has dramatically increased, the Earth has become quite thirsty as reservoirs are depleted. It has become a sponge, compensating for this unprecedented loss by absorbing what is melting from ice sheets and glaciers. This has served to curb rising sea levels despite the fact that glaciers and ice sheets continue to melt.

Now scientists are scrambling to recalculate future models and adjust previous projections of sea level rise as a result of the Earth’s warming oceans. So, although sea levels are still expected to rise, Earthlings have a little bit more time to solve the problems that will cause. But, once the Earth has slated her thirst, all that meltwater will then become a problem.

NASA is using a twin satellite system, GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), to measure how much water is being stored within the Earth. Since scuba divers can’t delve into these underground reservoirs, just what kind of digital dipstick is being used? The satellites use gravity to measure liquid. The gringa scratches her head and says, “Um, what? A gravity yardstick? How does that work?”

As the twin satellites orbit the Earth, they measure the distance between themselves. Their measurements are so accurate and precise, they can get as close as a strand of human hair. Amazing! But, I digress. GRACE then transmits the data to Earthling researchers who use the information to measure any gravitational change in the Earth that is the result of any change Earth’s water distribution.

By using this method, scientists have measured how much water has been stored within Earth’s continents as a result of ice sheet and glacier melt. This is the first study of its kind. And, according to NASA’s mission to use technology to safeguard the future of Earth and the lives of Earthlings, the agency has shared this knowledge with other scientific communities around the world.

And GRACE is proving her mettle in other areas of climate change data as well. The satellites are tracking circulation and current patterns within the Atlantic Ocean. The typical current pattern of the Gulf Stream carries warm, tropical water northward to Greenland. By the time it arrives at its northern destination, the water has cooled significantly. Colder water is denser so the water that originated from the tropics, and was riding at the surface. has sunk as deep as two miles within the ocean by the time it gets to Greenland. The colder, heavier, bottom water is then dragged back South.

In this way the waters of the Atlantic Ocean are consistently agitated, cooled, oxygenated and nutritionally refreshed. Oceanographers call this pattern the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). However, the gringa prefers the common name, the “Conveyor Belt” of the Atlantic.

The Atlantic’s “Conveyor Belt” effect is like an air conditioner for the world’s oceans. It is critical to modulating the temperature of the Earth. Data collected from GRACE has revealed that the “Conveyor Belt” is slowing down. Researchers are uncertain if this is directly caused by climate change or if other factors are at play.

GRACE is going to help answer these questions. One way is by measuring gravity data from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Changes in the ocean’s currents will result in pressure changes that GRACE can detect with gravitational measurements.

And GRACE is also contributing to the development of practical solutions that can be implemented right now, helping the people of Brazil. 2015 was the worst year in over three decades for drought in Brazil.

Hydrologists were able to use data collected from GRACE to calculate that in a three year period Brazil lost about fifteen trillion gallons of water each year. Water levels of aquifers and rivers were also analyzed.

Brazil is heavily dependent on the country’s rivers to provide water for their people, electricity production and for critical agriculture. The data provided by GRACE enables the Brazilian government to create models that will simulate future expected droughts. This makes it possible for the nation to plan effectively, monitor their water resources responsibly and continue to provide for the water needs of over 200 million Brazilians.

And those are just some of the facts about “Amazing GRACE”.



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Jason & the Argonauts… and NASA, Too

Who remembers the story of Jason and the Argonauts? You know, that ancient Greek myth of seafaring Jason and his crew, the Argonauts, who embarked upon the high seas in search of the Golden Fleece. Well, Jason is back! And this time he is orbiting Earth’s high seas and measuring their levels.

SpaceX may have had a bitter disappointment a couple of days ago, but the gringa prefers to focus on their accomplishment that went unnoticed. Sunday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched Jason into outerspace, well, the Jason-3 spacecraft, that is. Jason-3 is the product of NASA collaboration with France’s CNES and Europe’s Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. Jason-3 is on a mission to track the rise of sea levels all around the world.

The goal of this intelligence gathering is to improve forecasting of Earth’s weather, climate and oceans. The data will also help scientists expand their knowledge on the ocean’s role in the world’s climate. Jason-3 will be working in tandem with Jason-2 that is already in a locked in orbit. Jason-2 has been in operation since 2008. Jason-3 will officially clock in and report for duty after a six-month phase of calibration and system checks. Once on duty, every ten days Jason-3 will report precise measurements of the height of 95% of Earth’s ice free oceans, this is called ocean-surface topography.

The Jason duo measurements will provide information about coastal tides, shallow seas, open ocean tides, currents and eddies. This type of topography also tells scientists how much energy from the sun is stored within the ocean which is the key to understanding how sea level rise affects climate change.

Jason’s official mission began in 1992 along with Topex/Poseidon. Since then scientists have discovered that the world’s seas are rising, on average, about 3 millimeters every year. As humans continue to make industry and lifestyle decisions that cause global warming, mankind is actually reshaping the surface of our home planet.

The gringa wants to know exactly what kind of shape we are getting ourselves into. What the heck is going to happen if sea levels keep rising?  But first, the gringa needs to know how this happens. What I’ve found out is:

  • Climate Change Causes Thermal Expansion: Water heats up, it expands, therefore it occupies more space
  • Glacial & Polar Ice Cap Melts: These natural ice formations experience a natural summer cycle of ice melt that is usually replaced in winter by evaporated seawater that creates snow. Climate change creates consistently warmer temperatures. This creates warmer Summers where more ice than usual melts. Summer usually lasts longer, Spring arrives earlier, thus winter is shorter and unable to keep up with replacing all the extra ice that is lost. Thus, all of this extra melt runoff causes sea levels to rise.
  • Greenland & West Antarctica: Climate change creates warmer temperatures that is causing the accelerated melt of massive ice sheets in these critical regions. Meltwater & seawater may also be seeping beneath these ice sheets which is causing them to slip out to sea quicker. Warmer sea temperatures are compromising the stability of underwater ice shelves causing them to weaken and break. All this contributes to rising sea levels.

Here are some of the things that happen as sea levels rise and the geography and coastlines of Earth transform:

  • Coastal habitat erosion
  • Coastal wetlands flooding
  • Contamination of coastal aquifers and agricultural land
  • Habitat loss for coastal fish, birds and plants
  • Larger, more powerful storms
  • Vulnerability to flooding for coastal dwelling people
  • Eventual mass migration of island and coastal dwelling people

The gringa wants to know, “What can we do?” Scientists seem to think that it’s a done deal with a relatively slow timeline (depending on how you look at it). So, mankind has until about the year 2100 to relocate folks from the future swamplands of the world’s coastlines. That’s the year they predict the world’s oceans could be about six feet higher than they are now, or possibly even 20 feet higher if the Greenland ice sheet bites the dust.

The gringa, however, has a plan. I’m near enough the Texas Gulf Coast that, by the time I’m in my golden years, my low rent apartment could be prime ocean front property. Sweet. My one hour drive to the beach could become a ten minute stroll when I’m too darn old to drive. So, over the next couple of decades I’ll be stocking up on fishing supplies and sunblock. I tell ya, timing is everything!

If you want to know more about Jason’s mission and follow along with the tracking of the seas, visit

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