Warming Trends: Putting Citizen Scientists to Work, Assuring Climate-Depressed Kids That the Future is Bright, and Deploying Solar-Hydrogen Generators

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

Snow piles on the trees at Olympic National Park. Credit: D Logan/Classicstock/Getty Images
Snow piles on the trees at Olympic National Park. Credit: D Logan/Classicstock/Getty Images

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Is There Snow in the Trees? 

A group of researchers interested in analyzing thousands of images of mountain trees turned to an app for citizen scientists during the Covid-19 pandemic and asked a simple question: Is there snow on any of the branches? 

The respondents then used their copious free time to help classify a massive database of time-lapse photographs of snowy mountain forests. The dataset was used in a recent study in the journal Water Resources Research, which found that models that attempt to simulate how much snow is intercepted by the canopy are providing estimates with errors as high as 20 percent. 

This means that in mountain regions around the world, communities dependent on snowmelt from high elevations to get their water may not get reliable projections on how much water to expect from the snowmelt in years to come. 

“Basically our dataset shows that these estimations aren’t good enough,” said lead author Cassie Lumbrazo, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington. 


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The problem is, these models are often based on a few observations in a few climates that are not transferable to other climates. For example, one model may be best suited in Washington state, where the air is saturated and the snow sticks to tree branches like glue. The snow there melts and falls to the ground in the springtime. But in Colorado, where the air is dry and the snow is light, much of the snow is blown around and vaporized into the atmosphere, often not melting and reaching downstream communities.

Understanding these differences between regions is key for understanding future water availability, Lumbrazo said. Even a small error can compound into a massive misestimation when projecting decades into the future, she said, as many climate models do. 

“We need to know how much snow is on the ground at a given point,” she said. “If we don’t have the calculation right then we’re not going to get our water right. So it’s dissecting one component of a larger model, but it’s one component that actually hasn’t been looked at before because there hadn’t been any data to do that.” Now, with the help of citizen scientists, there is.


‘I Want Kids To Be Hopeful’

The world’s children are going to grow up on a planet forever altered by climate change. Surveys have shown that most children and young adults are worried about climate change and are afraid of the future. Many report feelings of sadness, anxiety and powerlessness in the face of such a world. 

“Climate anxiety is the second pandemic that kids in America are facing,” said Kenn Viselman, a former producer for the children’s shows Teletubbies and Thomas the Tank Engine. Viselman said the burdens that kids are carrying inspired him to come out of retirement and help run a show for kids aged 4 to 10, called MeteoHeroes, where six young animated superheroes use their powers to solve big climate and environmental catastrophes, spurred by the evil pollution monster Dr. Makina. 

The show, which debuted on PBS in the United States earlier this year, was created by Luigi Latini, who is on the board of directors at an Italian weather center. Meteorologists from the center consult on episodes to ensure the science portrayed is sound, Viselman said, and child psychology professionals also give input to ensure the content is appropriate for kids and helps ease their anxieties, not enhance them.

Viselman’s entertainment company has partnered with the online education platform Adventure 2 Learning to bring the show into the classroom in 30,000 schools around the U.S., pending government funding for climate change education, he said. 

The key takeaway from each episode of MeteoHeroes is “you don’t need to wear a cape to be a superhero,” Viselman said, and “everybody has the power within themselves to change the world.” Each episode leaves kids with something they can do to improve the planet, whether it’s taking shorter showers, turning off lights or sorting their recycling.

“I want kids to be hopeful. I want them to know the future’s bright. I want them to know they have the power to change the world if they don’t like the direction it’s headed in,” Viselman said. “I’d like them to know that there are people out there who care, who are listening and who are trying to help them make their world brighter.”


Altered Landscapes in Four Movements

The Covid-19 pandemic was a reckoning, bringing modern life as we’d known it since World War II to a screeching halt. And then the pandemic led to a rebirth of sorts and showed that a more sustainable future might be possible. 

That narrative is wrapped up in a new symphony composed by Jimmy López Bellido and performed by the Reno Philharmonic for the first time last month. The composition, commissioned by Reno Philharmonic conductor Laura Jackson, was inspired by the events of the last two years as well as a photo collection called Altered Landscapes at the Nevada Museum of Art, depicting human impact on the Earth. López Bellido examined these images, Jackson said, “and from that wrote it sonically, so we went from pictures to a symphony.”

The 34-minute piece consists of four movements. The first, titled “Great Acceleration,” is inspired by images of urban development and symbolizes humanity’s consumption of resources between World War II and the present day through quickening tempos. The second movement, titled “Stillness,” signals when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and halted unnecessary human activity. The third movement, titled “Reckoning,” invokes a meditative tone with a recurring mantra meant to be reflective. And the final movement, titled “Alignment,” brings back sounds from the first three movements to create a sound representing a hopeful, hypothetical future where humanity comes out from the pandemic better and lives more sustainability on the planet.  

“At the end, it’s a very, very hopeful symphony. It’s a very hopeful piece,” said Jackson. “And full of energy, but I really love that it also faces the daunting task that we have had.”

Normally other orchestras would have to pay to perform the symphony, but Jackson said the piece is available for any orchestra to perform as long as they donate at least $1,000 to the land conservation organization The Nature Conservancy. 

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A Solar-Hydrogen Nanogrid in Large or Small

When disasters like wildfires and hurricanes strike, victims left without power often resort to diesel-powered generators to keep the lights on. But a solar power company this week unveiled its fully renewable alternative, and it can do a lot more than just keep the lights on. 

Powered by solar and green hydrogen, Sesame Solar’s mobile nanogrids can be quickly trucked into a disaster area and brought up and running by a novice in as little as 15 minutes. The nanogrid can be used to restore power for vital services during emergencies, including communications and WiFi stations, medical equipment and water purification and filtration systems. The only inputs needed are sun for the solar panels and water for the hydrogen fuel cell, which uses hydrogen separated from oxygen in water molecules to power a battery on board.

After seeing the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, longtime entrepreneur and CEO of Sesame Solar Lauren Flanagan was inspired to pursue a way to help people after climate disasters. 

“If we could figure out how to make mobile, easy to use, fast to deploy scalable power plus essential services after a catastrophe like Katrina, that’s actually what we need to help adapt to this,” Flanagan said.

A nanogrid comes in two sizes, a smaller one that can be towed by a truck and a larger one that can be transported on a flatbed trailer. Depending on the equipment inside the nanogrid, the price can range from $100,000 to $300,000.

Sesame Solar’s customers have included Comcast and the U.S. Air Force. Flanagan hopes that someday her company will be able to lease the nanogrids out and get them to places that are prone to disasters before they happen.

“We can’t turn back the clock right now, sadly,” she said. “We can’t stop hurricanes and wildfires and tornadoes from coming, but we can adapt as a people, as society, as communities, to how we can mitigate the impacts from those and do so in a way with renewable power.”