Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Next Maunder Minimum Will Not Freeze Your A**

Crane Beach, MA (Aug 25, 2007)

For most Bostonians, Crane beach is the place to cool off during hot summer days, taking advantage of the cool waters of the Atlantic ocean, just a short drive from town. During this time, the sandy expanse is a temple for the worshippers of the Sun, and its warming rays. I was thinking about this as I remembered a flurry of articles that appeared on the tabloids a couple of weeks ago, making apocalyptic predictions about how the Sun is on the verge of triggering a new ice age. This impending cataclysm will supposedly nullify global warming, and herald years of freezing winters followed by the absence of summer. As expected, these articles were immediately picked up by the usual climate change deniers communities. But is this really true? Are we really headed towards a new ice age?

Bi-color Crane beach
The last glacial period (ice age) lasted for over 100,000 years, and ended about 12,000 years ago. During that period the polar ice sheet reached its maximum extension, covering large areas of northern Europe, Asia and America. That was the time when the mammoths were roaming the frozen steppes of Siberia. Most of humanity lived at the edge of the ice, at more temperate latitudes, while only our cousins the Neanderthals were well adapted to the colder central European climate. This was just the last of a long succession of glacial periods in the last 2.6 million years, triggered by small changes in the orientation of Earth's orbit, with a periodic pattern called Milankovitch cycle. If we ignore the effect of anthropogenic climate change (which is instead warming the planet), we are indeed directed towards a phase of the next Milankovitch cycle that will lead to a new glaciation: this will not happen, however, for the next 50,000 years.

The ice age mentioned in last week news, however, has nothing to do with the Milankovitch cycle. It refers instead to the little ice age that hit Europe 400 years ago. This time was characterized by bitter winters in northern Europe, and is roughly coincident with a period of low solar activity, which is called Maunder Minimum. Discovered by Annie and Walter Maunder by analyzing historical counts of sunspots, the Maunder Minimum stands out as a period between 1672 and 1699 during which the Sun was almost completely devoid of sunspots. Since sunspots are the consequence of the changing magnetic activity of the Sun, counting the sunspots is a good proxy to estimate the overall activity of the Sun, with no-sunspots indicating a very quiet Sun. During the Maunder Minimum, the Sun was at its quietest of all recorded history. Why that happened is still a mystery, since there is no current physical theory capable to predict the long term ebbs and flows of the solar cycle, or tell us if and when a new minimum will occur. It is in this context that a new study announced at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society has triggered the media storm related to an impending new age. The authors of this study claim to have developed a complex model of solar activity capable to predict the occurrence of the next Maunder minimum, that will start in the decade between 2030 and 2040. This was enough to trigger the media storm about an imminent new ice age, that will balance the effects of anthropogenic climate change, and plunge the world into a deep freeze.

Ice age at Crane beach
The reality, unfortunately, is not so convenient. Despite the coincidence in time between the Maunder Minimum and the little ice age, there is little scientific evidence that the two phenomena are related. During the little ice age the global climate didn't change very much, with only northern Europe (and Greenland) experiencing colder than usual winters. Summers temperatures were however normal. Some line of evidence point towards the cold winters being caused not by the low activity of the Sun, but rather by concomitant massive volcanic eruptions in Indonesia and Vanuatu, releasing vast amount of ashes and sulfuric acid particles in the atmosphere, blocking the Sun and cooling the Earth. Despite the lack of evidence, the Maunder Minimum is still often mentioned as a possible cause for the little ice age in Europe. That's why, even though the original press release doesn't make any claim about an impending ice age, the press and the climate-change denier community jumped on chance of minimizing the impact of human activity on the climate, by placing the Sun in the driver's seat. But so is not: even if a little ice age could be caused by an imminent Maunder Minimum, the effect on the climate would be minuscule, dwarfed by the much larger increase caused by the greenhouse gases that we recklessly pump in the atmosphere. We unfortunately cannot count on whimsical ice ages to save us from our own foolishness.

[Edit: an earlier version of this post mentioned that the research presented at the Royal Astronomical Society meeting was not peer review. There is in fact a 2014 paper that present the model described in the press release. The research makes predictions for the near future solar activity, but does not address in any way its effect on climate.]

Crane Beach, MA (Aug 17, 2008)

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Crane Beach, MA (May 1, 2005)

A variation of the photo above became very popular years ago, in the age of Myspace, before Facebook was yet a thing. The image was posted on my old photoblog, with this same title, and Google Images was very fond of linking it. As a result it was hotlinked by a multitude of angsty teenegers, attracted by its "blue" mood and introspective atmosphere. It almost crashed my server.

Jennifer at Crane Beach
The person walking in the ocean is Jennifer, my photo-buddy at the time, which I mentioned in a previous post. As local Ipswich resident +Hong Zhang recently reminded me, Crane beach is beautiful at any hour, but at sunset is quite special. For most of the year the sun sets across the Ipswich river estuary, behind the peninsula west of the beach. If you are in the right spot, the sun is hidden from view as it disappear behind the curvature of Earth, and its reddened light is blocked by the houses and trees of Ipswich. Once the red rays of the setting sun are removed, all is left are the indirect blue lights diffused by the dome of the sky. As a result, Crane beach at sunset is the apotheosis of the blue hour: the sand acquires the same deep blue color of the ocean, and the only feature separating the solid and liquid elements is the thin line of azure foam eternally moving in the constant tug-of-war between land and sea. We could best take advantage of this natural wonder off-season, when we could park the car at Castle Hill and then walk down to the beach, the only way that would allow us to stay late without the risk of being trapped in the main parking lot. We would then roam on the cold wet sand, until the after hours, capturing the magic of the place in the blue twilight of the early night. It was always worth it.

Crane Beach, MA (March 19, 2005)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Father and Son

Crane Beach, MA (June 26, 2005)

Italian parents are notoriously over-protective of their children. I remember going to the riviera Adriatica in the middle of July and having to wear a sleeveless shirt, just in case I would get a cold air draft... or, simultaneously, too much sun. And of course I could not even touch the shallow Adriatic water for at least 4 hours after lunch, to make sure everything I ate was thoroughly digested, in order to avoid fatal cramps and the inevitable drowning that would follow.

Playing in the rain
My understanding is that parenting in other countries may be different. When I was a graduate student in Cambridge, MA, one of my officemates was a father of three from Finland. I remember being kind of shocked when, in the middle of Massachusetts winter, he told me that he was bringing his kid to play in the frozen rain, as a measure for preventing them from getting the cold. My young italian self would have probably died at just the idea; I guess natural selection may play a role in all this. Anyway, the father in the large photo above was probably in-between the Italian and Finnish extremes: he did bring his kid to the Crane beach to play in the rain, but at least it was a rather warm day at the end of June. The kid survived.

I shot the the two photos above, as well as the panorama below, the same day as the photos in the previous post. Crane beach is very scenic in stormy days. Of course being so close to the water during thunderstorms can be hazardous, but fortunately that day, while the rain was intense, there was no lightning. We sheltered under one unoccupied lifeguard chair, taking pictures of the people frolicking in the water: the one cold ocean below, and the warm drops falling from above.

Crane Beach, MA (June 26, 2005)

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Crane Beach, MA (June 26, 2005)

I don't know who he was. He arrived at the end of the tempest. He was alone. He took off his shoes and started walking in the direction of the sunset. Slowly. One step after another on the thin line where the water from the ocean mixes with the wet sand after the rain. Sometimes he stopped, looking afar. Maybe he was thinking of somebody, imagining her walking out of the mist, coming back to him, now that the storm was over. She didn't come. He put back his shoes and left, in silence as he arrived. The waves of the ocean erased his footprint, as if they never existed.
I posted this photo, and the short story it inspired, several years ago in the previous incarnation of this blog. At the time I was going quite assiduously to Crane beach, in all seasons and weather. Mayli was traveling a lot even then, so I would often go there to shoot, alone or with a friend that was very much into filmography. Crane beach in summer is usually very crowded, but my frequentations were usually limited at the end of the day, just before the beach closed and the park rangers would throw everybody out. At that time the beach is almost always empty, with just a few solitary souls that like to linger as much as possible in the light of the sunset. Like the guy above, braving the humid ocean air following a rather strong storm that had emptied the beach half an hour before. I have no idea what he was doing there, probably nothing like the story I made up for him. I similarly don't know what the kid in the panorama below was thinking, staring in silence at the water silently flowing through his feet, in advance of the low tide, with the only company of atlantic seagulls.

Crane Beach, MA (June 26, 2005)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Crane Beach

Crane Beach, MA (June 26, 2005)

The good news is that the thermometer finally raised to summer temperatures. The bad news is that it didn't stop, and it went straight up from yesterday's 15ºC to today's 36ºC. That's in the high 90s, for the folks this side of the Atlantic that still refuse to acknowledge the metric system spread centuries ago by the French revolution to the whole rest of the world. The heat index is even worse, with enough humidity that I swear there was a trout playing tag with the finches frequenting the bird feeder on my deck. Over 45ºC, whatever it means... unbreathable air that feels like scalding steam... the inevitable bad karma for all the sacrificial lobsters I mercilessly gorged upon. 

Mayli walking ahead
To be fair, this hellish weather is not much hotter or wetter than the similarly torrid sauna I remember from my Massachussetts summers. With one big difference: when the temperature in Boston became too high I could always hit the road to the beach, and cool off in the year-round frigid waters of the Atlantic. That's not an option in Iowa: according to Wolfram Alpha the closest ocean to my house is 1328 km (825 miles) away in the Gulf of Mexico. I won't be able to make it back for dinner. The only escapism that is thus left is reminiscing about the sweet memories of the beaches of yore, when day trips to the sandy shores where the sacred rite of the sunny summer weekends. My favorite place of all, for the many years I lived in Boston, was Crane beach on the North Shore, a 4 miles long expanse of finely crushed seashells with sandbars and sand dunes, a mosquito-infested pitch pine forest, and miles and miles of hiking trails. When we were in Boston, we went there a lot.

So, this is the deal. Since I clearly have to suffer the next few sweltering days without access to the sea, I will torture myself by posting photos I took at Crane beach during the 12 years I was a Boston denizen. Starting from today, vicariously cooling off, looking at the pixels on my screen.

Crane Beach, MA (Aug 25, 2007)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Nomadic Life of a Scientist to Be

Crane Beach, MA (Aug 7, 2004)

The most accurate adjective to describe the life of scientists is "nomadic". At precisely the time when most people find their first permanent job and settle down to build a family, aspiring scientists go to graduate school. For a subsistence salary, graduate students cross continents and oceans. They find their temporary place in some university around the world, where they learn the basic tools of the trade, and discover that science is based less on strokes of genius, than it is on persistence and hard work.

Graduate school lasts for 4 to 6 years, after which the newly minted Ph.D.s are on the road again, on to their first decently paid gig, as a postdoctoral research scientist, or postdoc for short. As postdocs, the young scientists learn to work independently, and build their portfolio of publications which is required, one day, to attain a permanent position. This chimera is however rarely found at the end of the first postdoctoral experience: typically two or more postdocs are required until a university, or a lab, will offer a permanent position. An all consuming tenure track position that will finally allow, six years later, to finally settle. All in all, from the day the aspiring scientists begin their undergraduate degree, to the time when they are tenured in a permanent job, it can pass more than two decades. During this period, every few years the scientists and their family uproot themselves, leave friends behind, adapt to a new life in a new city, in a new continent, a new culture, maybe a new language.

This happened to all of us, the few lucky ones that never looked at the abyss opening under our feet, and managed to hop ahead from step to step, school to school, job to job. It was quite an adventure, but not without casualties: all the friendships that were left behind, or that left us pursuing their own adventures, in some faraway corner of the world.

The photo above shows my friend Elena, when she visited us in Boston, and we went to Crane beach on the North Shore. We graduated together in Physics in Torino, then we did graduate school again together, in the same institute in Trieste. She is a biophysicist studying the electrical properties of brain cells. After her Ph.D. she went to work as a postdoc in Israel, then Paris. When she was in Paris I managed to visit her from time to time, when my own work was bringing me to the French capital. We have not seen each other since she moved to the University of Bordeaux where she has now a permanent job.

Of my graduate school classmates, not a single one still lives in Italy.

Crane Beach, MA (Aug 7, 2004)