#Atlantic #Hurricane Season Begins

Although there has already been activity in the form of “Subtropical Storm Ana,” the Atlantic hurricane season officially begins today. There is presently no activity in the Atlantic, and none forecast for foreseeable future (which is only a few days). There are some weak systems in other parts of the world including Choi-Wan, a tropical storm decaying to a depression as it brushes the northern Philippines. So how does the year look? We’ll know in December 😛 but for what it’s worth here’s the forecast ..

So the question most people have at this point is what kind of season is coming, and that usually devolves to the number guessing game. It’s likely to be an “normal to above normal” season in terms of overall activity. Here is a link to the official NOAA forecast. In short, hurricane activity in the Atlantic is largely driven by two factors. The first big driver is the state of the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which drive the big currents in the atmosphere that both control their formation and intensity (through wind shear) and direction of movement. The ENSO state transitioned from La Nina to “Neutral” this spring, and is forecast to stay neutral through the end of the hurricane season, with the possibility of returning to La Nina conditions late in the year. Here is the forecast from the main NOAA model, the Climate Forecast System (CFS):

The second big driver is the heat content in the ocean, which provides the energy for storms. The Atlantic remains above – here is the latest anomaly map (the deviation from long term averages).

You can see that while there are a few cool spots, much of the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico remains above normal, so there will likely be plenty of energy for storms to draw from (don’t worry too much about the complex swirls off the US Northeast; that’s just the Gulf Stream, and it meanders so some areas will be hotter or cooler on any given day).

So, what does that all mean? As it turns out, the post I did back in March is still mostly on track (click to read). For the Georgia and SC Low Country coast, the probability of a severe landfall is below normal early and middle part of the season (back door storms and annoying, evacuation-inducing bypassers are always possible) due to the ENSO Neutral conditions. Later in the year the risk is higher – if La Nina returns, risks are above normal for October/November (about a 50/50 chance of that). The Caribbean may be busy early – we’ll have to watch.

But for now things are quiet, so enjoy the late spring and start of summer. Once again as a reminder, this is the time of year to revisit your hurricane plans, especially insurance. There is a “lock out” period for changes prior to a storm and if you wait until one is headed your way, it’s too lateCheck out Ready.gov for checklists and advice.

Another #cyclone headed to #India, #Kolkata on edge of track

Cyclone Two (soon to be Cyclone Yaas) is headed towards the northwestern corner of the Bay of Bengal, and is expected to make landfall just south of Kolkata, India. This is a much more densely populated area than where last weeks Tauktae hit. On the current forecast track, over 110 Million people are within the tropical storm wind swath, with nine million experiencing hurricane conditions, and 1.5 million at risk from flooding.

Click to enlarge

The economic impacts would likely be around $1 BIllion USD, but of course as is usual in that part of the world the humanitarian impacts are far disproportionate to the economics. Another issue is the impact on India’s already overstressed health care system. In the damage swath are 477 major health care facilities and hundreds more smaller clinics at risk of disruption due to high winds and flooding. No need to say this will exacerbate the already horrid COVID19 situation now and in the weeks after the storm.

Hospitals/clinics at risk from Two (IO022021)

While not forecast to be as strong a storm as Tauktae, this one has the potential to cause a lot more human misery …

#Climate change: which “side” is more delusional?

One of the more catastrophic artifacts of America’s sharply split political system is that instead of one side being right and one side being wrong, both parties seem to be forced by their activists in to adopting positions that are driven by fringe ideology instead of rational thought as to how to solve any given problem. The looming climate crisis (which is really a complex energy/financial system crisis) is a perfect example. Which is worse? Hard to say, but let’s take a look at the two biggest delusions: there is no climate change, and renewables will save us.

The delusions of the R’s …

I’ve been involved in climate research for over 25 years, and as a scientist it still stuns me that anyone can possible say anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, or some kind if leftist plot, or whatever. I’ve blogged about this before. The data across interlocking disciplines like meteorology, oceanography, biology, geology/geophysics, all point in the same direction. You can argue over the details, and what to do about it, but you can’t argue over the big picture: humans have changed the earth’s climate system, and it is likely to enter a period of rapid change over the next century that will most likely prove highly disruptive both to humans and the natural world. However, as someone with a background in the geopolitical world, denying human impacts on climate doesn’t surprise me a bit – in fact, given how the crisis came to light, it was inevitable.

Some of the more outspoken scientists doing early research on climate really screwed up. I understand that they feared for the future and felt they needed to raise the alarm, but they overstepped the bounds of the role of scientists. Many of them in the public eye (such as James Hansen) crossed the line between science and partisan politics by advocating specific actions based on their political leanings. By the mid to late 1990s the impression had been firmly fixed in the minds of many politicians as well as members of the public that the science was politically biased. Combined with the religious component (as I discussed in the link above), this created a circumstance where the science wasn’t trusted. While it would have been a hard job to navigate the complex energy, financial, and societal response required by human impacts on climate, this false impression of political bias in the science has created an almost intractable situation.

and the D’s aren’t any better.

The situation on the Progressive side of the spectrum isn’t any better. By any rational metric the proposals floating around for the Green New Deal are technological fantasies, and are based more on restructuring society than the realities of trying to address the climate crisis. Take one small technical detail about so-called renewable energy: solar panels and wind turbines (much less batteries) are advanced electronic devices. They take a lot of Rare Earth Elements(REE) to make, and that presents two huge problems:
1) Mining and processing REE’s is an environmentally destructive process, basically being strip mining with lots of toxic (even radioactive) waste (more so than mining Uranium), not to mention using a lot of water.
2) Depending on how you crunch the numbers, there aren’t enough known REE’s on the planet for even a third of our present energy needs.

If it wasn’t so delusional and going to end so badly it would be mildly amusing to hear people rant about how fossil fuels are limited and using them is environmentally damaging, then in the next breath preach about the cleanliness and potential for solar or wind – which are by the same measures just as resource limited and environmentally destructive.

Maybe this guy wants the job of fixing things …

So what do we do? Like most things, anyone who says they have “THE” answer is, well, delusional. This is a very complex problem that crosses so many aspects of society. It won’t be easy, and it will take time – time we are running out of if we haven’t already. As I noted above, I think for the most part scientists should keep out of the political process. However, if I were acclaimed Imperator Caesar, Princeps Senatus, Tribunicia Potestas, Pontifex Maximus (which is the only way I’d take on the job), I think I could put together an approach to start down the path to a solution. But nobody presently in power would like it. The first thing I’d do is completely rework the system of global governance. The climate crisis is ultimately a failure of governance – and it isn’t the worst threat we face in that respect (I am convinced that the worst threat to humanity – and the environment – is conflict/war and the collapse of the complex system of resource allocation/distribution needed to sustain nearly eight billion humans). As for energy and resources, there really isn’t much choice for wide scale reduction of emissions given our present technology: immediate widespread use of nuclear for electricity generation, combined with a crash program for fusion and the development of a sustainable, high energy density method of powering transportation systems. There are other complex changes that need to be made, all of which will take time and some serious rethinking of how society functions. In other words, to fix this, the technology will piss off Progressives, and the social changes will piss off the Neoconservatives. So I just don’t know how our present angry, bifurcated political system can come up with a good plan without an outside force like a benign Emperor to make the two sides behave.

Yes, climate problem is a crisis, and we’ve wasted at least 25 years we really didn’t have to start dealing with it. But we need to sort out the technology and have a clear rational, compassionate path forward before upending our economy and society. Going down the wrong path will kill as many if not more people, and be at least as destructive to the environment, as doing nothing.

#Tauktae approaching landfall in state of #Gujarat, #India.

Tauktae reached full intensity last night as a Category 3 or 4 hurricane just offshore from Mumbai, India. Here’s the view from the US Space Force EWS-G1 satellite this morning …

I really think “Space Force” is a bad name … click to embiggen.

From the early reports it seems like the worst of the storm has stayed offshore from Mumbai. Although there is a lot of light damage (and some fatalities and spots of heavier impacts), the winds were not as high as the JTWC forecast was predicting. The Indian Meteorological Service seems to have done better. Here’s a comparison of the two tracks and forecasts using the cool slider-comparison thingee. Notice that the IMS forecast keeps the hurricane force winds (orangish colors) offshore, whereas the JTWC shows the storm a bit larger than IMS and bringing hurricane force winds inland. That makes a *huge* difference in damage – 5 Million in the hurricane wind swath and just under $4 Billion in damage with the IMS forecast vs. 13.5 Million people and over $11 Billion on the JTWC track!

Drag the slider left to see IMS simulation, right to see JTWC simulation

Next up is landfall in Gujarat. Storm Surges could be over 4 meters (14 feet) just to the right of landfall and within the funnel shaped Gulf of Khambhat (Cambay). Here’s the storm surge forecast based on the JTWC track:

The forecast based on the IMS track is a little less but still well over 3 meters. This area is much less densely populated that near Mumbai, but damage will be more extensive.

#Hurricane week: what’s an average season? #Climate

This spring the US National Weather Service is rolling out a new “climate normal data set” – average temperatures, precipitation, highs and lows, and other variables including what is an “average” hurricane season based on a new 30 year reference period. At first glance the changes for daily weather may not look terribly significant, but they are quite consistent with the fact that average temperatures have been warming over the last century. For Savannah International Airport, the average temperature in May based on 1981-2010 data was 73.3 degrees F. The average temperature using 1991 to 2020 is 74.1 F, a 0.8 degree difference. Across the year that’s about the average increase. Only one month, October, saw a decrease in average temperature, from 59.3 F to 59.1 F. The biggest change was 1.5 F in December, followed by 1.2 F in January. Here’s a plot of the data …

Savannah about .8 degrees warmer on average …

So what does this have to do with hurricanes? As part of the assessment of the “new normal”, NOAA has re-evaluated what constitutes an “average” hurricane season. The old number, based on 1981-2010, was 12 named storms. The new definition says an average season will have 14 named storms. Here’s the summary:

Click to go to the NOAA press release …

While I think the overall reassessment is needed, I think the period is too short in both cases and biases the data, especially for hurricanes. I think a 50 year baseline of 1961-2010 makes more sense. The problem using the 1991-2020 period for hurricanes is that mostly covers the period of enhanced hurricane activity including the peak Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). On the flip side, NHC is counting storms that in past years would not have been given names (both due to better observations systems and changed procedures), so the high bias may be covering other sins in the statistics. Either way, if you hear that 2021 is an “average” year, keep in mind that’s two more storms than what an average year was in the past.

Which brings to mind one other point: averages don’t really tell you much about extremes. As as simple numerical example, the average of 30, 40, and 50 is of course 40, with extremes of plus or minus 10. But the average of 10,40, and 70 is also 40 – but with extremes of plus or minus 30! So you need both the average and another parameter like the variance to really understand a data set. This is a concept known in statistics as the (f)law of averages … so don’t be like this guy:

How dangerous is COVID? How about the COVID Vaccines?

We’re starting to get enough data to draw some conclusions. TLDR: COVID is dangerous – 4.5 times more deadly than the 2017 Influenza strain, which was a bad one. With the caveat that the long term studies are still underway for a lot of at-risk populations, COVID itself is about 215 times more deadly than the vaccine. The COVID vaccine isn’t really significantly more dangerous than the Influenza vaccine. Here’s a bit more detail and context …

You can’t get this vaccine for some reason.

There is a lot of argument and discussion over the relative risk of COVID vaccines, especially in Europe with the reports of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine potentially causing blood clots in some people, and the Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) in the mRNA vaccines causing anaphylaxis (allergic reactions) here in the US. Both are concerning – and there is an urgent need to figure out why certain people are more vulnerable to adverse reactions than others. Certainly those with known allergies should be very careful to check the components of each vaccine before receiving it – the CDC publishes guidelines for this, and if you have sensitivities check with your Doctor before getting a shot (or any) procedure. This is the dilemma of vaccination: it’s best for the vast majority of people, but can be dangerous for a few. But care must be taken not to blow that true statement out of proportion.

What are the overall risks – in context with other risks? Lets take a closer look at the data from the FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting System as well as the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics data bases and a few other data bases at CDC, NHTSA, and the FBI for context. Here is what your chances of dying this year look like:

  • Chances of dying from COVID: 1 in 163
  • Chances of dying from COVID Vaccine: 1 in 35,000
  • Chances of dying from Influenza (2017 H5N1 strain): 1 in 740
  • Chances of dying from Influenza Vaccine: 1 in 100,000
  • Chances of dying in any Accident: 1 in 1,350
  • Chances of dying from Gun Violence (you are a criminal): 1 in 3,000
  • Chances of dying from Gun Violence (you are not a criminal):1 in 220,000
  • Chances of dying from a Weather or Earthquake Hazard: 1 in 2 million or so

So in context, the vaccines are not risky compared to the disease – and certainly not compared to dying in a car accident (1 in 6000 or so). There has been some reports and talk that the COVID vaccines are significantly more dangerous than the Influenza vaccines. That’s a bit hard to judge. For one thing, the COVID vaccines are being scrutinized in a way the Influenza shots have not been. But even given that, the raw numbers show that the potentially associated mortality rate is about 2.8 times higher. It’s likely that difference would disappear if similar tracking were in place, but even if true isn’t bad. So the “50 times more side effects” stuff you see circulating is overblown.

Hope that helps put things in perspective …

Seasonal #Hurricane #Forecasts and ENSO

Like a bad remake of Groundhog Day, it’s that time of year when the various research groups emerge from their ivy covered lairs and issue forecasts for the upcoming Atlantic Hurricane season. I used to play that game, with the annual press conferences, media interviews, and associated tabulation of number of articles and citations to go into the next annual report and round of funding requests. But the last decade or so I have given up on the annual media circus as NOAA has started issuing its own estimates, and our research has moved on to site specific seasonal impact estimates rather than simply counting the number of storms. After all, having 20 storms doesn’t matter if none of them hit you; likewise, one storm can ruin your decade. So while this post does end with a suitably depressing outlook for 2021, it is more about the influence of the big driver of storm activity in the Atlantic: the ENSO or El Niño cycle.

CFS2 ENSO Forecast this fall from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has a huge impact on global weather. Although the usual way of measuring it is in terms of East Pacific sea surface temperatures, ENSO is a complex phenomena that changes both oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns worldwide. The Wikipedia page has a nice overview of the system; what concerns us here is the impact on hurricanes. In the Atlantic, the warm phase of ENSO (El Niño) typically depresses hurricane activity; likewise, the cold phase (La Niña) tends to result in more and stronger storms. Periods in between are called “ENSO Neutral” or neutral. The reason ocean temperatures in the Pacific influences Atlantic hurricanes (in another ocean thousands of miles away) are complex, but mostly have to do with wind shear over the Atlantic and the so-called “steering currents” that push storms around as they move across the ocean. Don’t confuse these Pacific SST’s with ocean temperatures in the Atlantic – that is a separate cycle and phenomena. Normally we associate warmer oceans with more hurricanes, but in this case, a warmer Pacific during a El Niño phase means the Atlantic becomes less favorable (at least from a wind shear perspective)! The worst combination is a cold Pacific (La Niña) and a warm Atlantic: the cold Pacific is cold because winds are favorable over the Atlantic, and the warm Atlantic means more energy for Atlantic storms. Confused yet? Don’t be – in this case it’s simple, we’re just looking at how the three phases of ENSO correlate with hurricane landfalls and damage since it is such a big factor.

Let’s take a look at the peak of hurricane season, the month of September to see what impact the contrasting ENSO phases have on the number of storms, as well as on damage. Using data since 1871, it’s pretty even split between the two contrasting conditions. About 25% of Septembers are El Niño, 24% are La Niña, whereas 51% are neutral. But in terms of total numbers of storms, 30% occur in La Niña years, whereas 22% occur in El Niño. That doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but it actually translates in to a significant difference in the number of storms between the two years – an El Niño September typically has one third fewer storms than either a neutral or La Niña year. The number of people impacted by hurricane conditions also reflects this difference in a similar way. About a third fewer people are impacted by hurricane conditions in an average El Niño September than in other kinds of years. Damage basin-wide is not quite so dramatic, with damage during La Niña years only about 25% higher than in El Niño. But … there are regional twists to this story.

The biggest driver of the economic impact of hurricanes in the Atlantic is of course the mainland United States. The US experiences nearly DOUBLE the economic impact of hurricanes in an average La Niña September as compared to El Niño years (33% vs 17%)! This is partly due to the higher intensity, but more importantly due to the landfalls in La Niña years being closer to high value exposures (cities, or targets if you prefer 😮 ) in the Northeast and Atlantic coasts. Looking at the other two active months, La Niña Augusts tend to have more storms – but those storms stay offshore, so the damage actually tends to be less than in El Niño years, but in October the impacts are dramatic. A La Niña October tends to generate three times the damage as an El Niño year.

If you look at individual states there are also dramatic differences. In Florida, La Niña Septembers have generated FOUR TIMES as much damage as El Niño years! In New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts there have been so few El Niño losses the computer said “Fuhgettaboutit” when I asked, they are so rarely damaged during those years, and La Niña years are so bad. The Gulf Coast isn’t quite so dramatic, but still Louisiana has had just under twice as much damage during La Niña.

Another interesting area is the Georgia/South Carolina Lowcountry coast (south of Edisto Isl). The unusual shape of the coastline, combined with being at the latitude where storms begin to recurve to the northeast means that for hurricane damage, the difference between La Niña and El Niño isn’t quite so dramatic – only about a 30% difference. However, unusually, activity is depressed in ENSO Neutral years, and elevated in both La Niña and El Niño Septembers.

What can we expect for this year? The current ENSO forecast for August to October is that we will almost certainly be at least neutral, and there is around a 50% chance of being back into La Niña conditions by September, and a higher chance for that in October. While not as favorable as last year, that’s Not Good for hurricane season, as it means higher than average activity. Therefore, I expect the hurricane forecasts coming out over the next few weeks to reflect that. Not likely as many storms as last year, but very likely to have multiple threats over the season. But there are a lot of other factors that go in to how many storm form in a given year, much less where any individual storms goes once it forms. The atmosphere is a very complex beastie.

So let the scare mongering begin … or, you could just enjoy the beautiful spring weather, the flowers blooming, and consider that as bad as hurricanes are, and unlike tornadoes that give you little warning, or earthquakes that give you almost none at all, you can see them coming days away, and have time to get out of the way. So as a reminder, this is the time of year to revisit your hurricane plans, especially insurance. There is a “lock out” period for changes prior to a storm and if you wait until one is headed your way, it’s too late. Check out Ready.gov for checklists and advice.

Sound Tracks for the Apocalypse

Since absolutely no-one has asked, here is a sample of what I listen to while working. I hope you find it an interesting mix … A lot of recent listening has been to metal bands from northern Europe. As an intro, hard to go wrong with Nightwish, Amorphis, Delain, or Within Temptation. Nightwish has had three lead singers – fans get in to flame wars over who is best, but each is good in their own way and worthy to listen to (even there is no doubt as to who is best, as this live clip proves 😛 … be sure to hang in there for the finale at the 9 minute mark):

After Forever, Floor Jansen’s previous group, disbanded but it has some great songs out there – “Equally Destructive” is a go to song for climate change, and “Discord” is just a great song. Look for other songs she’s done with various groups or solo – amazing vocalist and range.

I suspect that my two current second-most favorites (favorite is below the fold) are Amorphis and Sabaton. Amorphis has a variety of songs ranging from very heavy growls to near ballads. Here’s something in the middle …

Some people who don’t know any better think the Swedish metal band “Sabaton” glorify war. They’ve obviously never actually listened to most of the lyrics – even the songs that emphasize the heroic aspects of the military and war have an underlying message of “WTF was this really for?” that anyone who has lived that life will recognize. In any event, the song “En Livstid i Krig” (a Lifetime of War) is unmistakable. Here it is in Swedish …

… but as an accommodation to the few folks out there who don’t understand Nordic languages 😛 , here is a version in English. I think the Swedish lyrics are more poignant, it’s worth listening and have a translation of that version handy even if you don’t understand much. Sabaton’s music is a lesson in history, and they are fantastic live. Be sure to hack off Joakim and listen to “Swedish Pagans” from Wacken 2019 – this version with Tina Guo on Cello :O ! (it’s one of their most popular songs, and it’s a running joke that it’s never on the playlist and he hates it, but somehow gets played at every concert).

Continue reading

Thinking about weather/#climate #records

People love sports analogies. Maybe that’s why talking about weather records – be it record lows, record snow, whatever – gets a lot of press and attention. Sometimes it’s warranted, a lot of times it is (Surprise!) exaggerated and, almost always, reported out of context. The series of winter storms causing so much disruption across the US right now are certainly severe … here’s the current snow cover map, and forecast additional snow over the next 48 hours …

Snow Cover (blue) as of this morning (16 Feb 2021)

But just how “record breaking” is it? Let’s take a quick look at one weather station in Texas and try to get some context. Since we’re talking about the US, we’ll use medieval measurement units related to the FFF system 😛 …

Here is an excerpt from the official daily climate report from the NWS office in Houston, for Houston International Airport yesterday (Monday the 15th):

 CDUS44 KHGX 160849
 249 AM CST TUE FEB 16 2021
                 VALUE   (LST)  VALUE       VALUE  FROM      YEAR
   MAXIMUM         25   3:10 PM  83    1962  66    -41       67
   MINIMUM         16R  7:26 AM  18    1905  47    -31       40
   AVERAGE         21                        56    -35       54

That “R” next to the minimum means it is a new record. So … using the period 1892 to 2021 as the period of reference, the low temperature Monday set a new record for the 15th of February at 16 degrees. The old record was 18. In media headline terms, RECORD LOW IN HOUSTON!!! LOWEST TEMPERATURE IN OVER ONE HUNDRED YEARS!

But … if you read down a bit you will see the record for the 16th is 13 degrees, and if we check the 14th, the record was 10 degrees F (yes, ten!). So in that context, 16 is really cold but not so bad. Plus or minus a day in climate terms is no big deal, so for context you have to look at a couple of days either side of a record to see. In my global data archive I have daily records for thousands of stations since the mid 1970’s (that is the beginning of somewhat regular satellite data which is important in my research). Looking at Houston Intercontinental, we see that the twenty coldest temperatures since 1973 are:

     dtg         | lotempf 
  1989-12-24 00:00:00 |       7
  1989-12-23 00:00:00 |       7
  1983-12-25 00:00:00 |      11
  1989-12-25 00:00:00 |      11
  1983-12-26 00:00:00 |      11
  1982-01-11 00:00:00 |      12
  1985-01-22 00:00:00 |      16
  1985-01-21 00:00:00 |      16
  1989-12-22 00:00:00 |      16
  1979-01-03 00:00:00 |      17
  1979-01-02 00:00:00 |      17
  1983-12-27 00:00:00 |      18
  1983-12-31 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-20 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-11 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-10 00:00:00 |      18
  1983-12-24 00:00:00 |      18
  1977-01-19 00:00:00 |      18
  1983-12-30 00:00:00 |      19
  1976-11-30 00:00:00 |      19
 (20 rows)

So a low of sixteen is in fact pretty cold – now in the top 10 years since 1973, and the coldest mid February temperature since 1981 when there were a couple days that hit 20F.

In technical terms, this is the danger of looking at the tails of distributions, because of the way weather works with systems spanning several days, there is correlation between days, and gaps in the extremes.

So, yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s disruptive (even though it shouldn’t be, but that’s a different rant). It’s hazardous or even dangerous if you don’t exercise some common sense and take some precautions. But while extreme, I think calling it “once in a lifetime” is probably a bit overblown, given the 1989 Christmas cold snap with a week of lows below 20F. As with most things, context is everything.

Final note – during these kinds of extreme weather events, especially with power outages, please keep an eye on your neighbors (especially the elderly and those with health issues or disabilities) to make sure they are safe. Bring animals in for sure, and consider helping with projects that try to shelter strays. Given icy roads, DON’T DRIVE ON THEM IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING! And if you grew up in the south, be realistic: you don’t know what you are doing!!


Jupiter and Saturn

Conjunctions (the close approach of two objects) happen fairly frequently on a cosmic scale – Jupiter and Saturn pass one another about every 20 years, but today Jupiter and Saturn are the closest they have been in the sky since the year 1226, almost 800 years ago! This is one of those events that sounds a lot more spectacular than it looks. What you will see is one bright and one less bright star-like object in the sky that are less than the width of the full moon apart. The real show was in slow motion over the last couple of weeks as the two moved closer to one another. Here’s the view on the 13th and 18th (same focal length lens, slightly different times and camera position as you can see from the Spanish moss hanging down …). You can grab the slider (<>) and move it from side to side to see how much difference a week made …

Jupiter and Saturn, 13th and 18th of December

Through a small telescope you can see that these are not stars but planets … here is a view using a 400mm lens …

Saturn (top) and Jupiter. You can just make out the rings of Saturn and the cloud bands of Juipter in a small telescope. Although not visible in this shot you would also see several moons of each planet.

The real magic in this event is that you are seeing something that won’t be seen again in several lifetimes. People today are less attuned to the sky, especially given the lights in most cities block out the stars. Besides the sun, the only object most people see is the moon – and that often only when it’s full. But our ancestors watched the sky carefully, and noticed that some of the “stars” moved, and thought them to be special, perhaps messengers of the Gods or even the Gods Themselves. Those who watched the sky and interpreted the motions of the sun, moon, and stars noticed that in the years leading up to the year 750 AUC (Ab Urbe Condita, after the founding of The City – Rome) that there were a series of conjunctions between Jupiter, Venus, the Moon, and Saturn in auspicious constellations that may well have indicated to them that a new King would be born in Israel. That is one theory as to what the Christmas Star might have been, but there are others. From a theological standpoint seeking a naturalistic explanation seems to miss the point a bit since it is one of those things that probably isn’t going to convince anyone one way or the other. Besides, the Nativity was almost certainly in the Spring anyway … In any event, if you are a Christian or not, this is a window to a past where the majority of humans lived outside and were much more connected to the sky and their environment. So take a few minutes right after sunset and try to imagine what it was like thousands of years ago with no city lights, watching these mysterious objects majestically dance through the heavens …