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The Climate Mapping Tool You've Been Waiting For

Weather geeks, say goodbye to your morning productivity. The data conjurers at NOAA have rolled their latest environmental visualization out of the hanger, and it is bursting with every possible thing you'd want to know about the planet's health, from past to present to worrisome future.

Want to know what the clouds like looked during your city's last nasty storm? The "NOAA View" portal has crisp satellite images stretching 5 years back. Curious where snow and ice have accumulated this year? The frozen stuff is splashed about the globe like splattered white frosting. How hot will the weather soon be if humanity doesn't rein in its emissions? One of the several simulations crammed into this Swiss Army climate tool has this prediction: It will be blastedly warm, despite our best attempts to stop burning fossil fuels.

Here's a closer look at that particular climate model. It displays expected temperature anomalies above the 20th-century average as angry red areas, with the darkest-crimson hues representing warm spikes as high as 6 degrees Celsius above average. (Blue regions are below-average abnormalities, but you won't be seeing many of those.) These are the predicted air temperatures in 2100 under a "low" emissions scenario; notice the hot zones have pooled in the United States and parts of central Asia:

And the world is positively choking in torrid air by 2100 under a "very-high emissions scenario":

On Tuesday, NOAA pitched its new visualization tool this way:

The NOAA View imagery portal provides a single point for experiencing NOAA data from satellites, models, and in-situ analyses. The site allows for seamless browse, animate, and download capability of high resolution images and Google Earth formatted files. With over 60 datasets (and growing) that go as far back as 1880 and out to 2100, NOAA View provides the ability to see our dynamic planet and how it changes over weeks, months, years and even decades.

Given our instinctive desire to not, you know, suffer, it's natural to want to use this tool to root out the most pressing threats to the planet. NOAA has done a good job with one of those, ocean acidification, in this simulation:

What you're looking at is how the seas' chemistry could turn toxic for many organisms by the end of the century. Explains NOAA:

The two globes illustrate the changes in ocean acidification that are expected as the ocean continually absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As more and more carbon dioxide reacts with water, the building blocks of the calcium carbonate shells used by so many marine organisms either dissolve or cannot form to begin with. The availability of these building blocks (called aragonite; a form of calcium carbonate) is shown here. Areas of the ocean colored green are sufficiently saturated with aragonite to support shell formation; areas colored yellowish-brown are under-saturated, and shell dissolution occurs. A climate model, run by CESM in collaboration with scientists at NOAA PMEL, shows the change in ocean aragonite saturation from 1885 to what is expected in 2094. Most of the ocean in the image on the right is uninhabitable by organisms using calcium carbonate, such as corals, pteropods, oysters, and many others.

What other fun, doom-laden stuff can you find with NOAA View? Let's take a brief tour, beginning with sea-surface temperature anomalies for late October to the present day. Researchers have plucked out the abnormally warmer and cooler regions in red and blue, respectively. Many researchers believe that the oceans have acted like a vast sponge for the emissions that humans have been pumping out, with some areas of the Pacific warming 15 times faster in the past six decades than in the previous 10,000 years, according to one study in Science. A scientist told USA Today: "We may have underestimated the efficiency of the oceans as a storehouse for heat and energy. It may buy us some time – how much time, I don't really know. But it's not going to stop climate change":

This map shows the concentrations of dissolved phosphates in the water. That big purple blotch at center is the Black Sea, a vast septic tank of phosphates thanks in part to fertilizer leaching from farmlands and municipal sewage discharges (geography also plays a role):

And here's Superstorm Sandy bombing the East Coast last October. There's no consensus among climate scientists about whether more greenhouse gas means more hurricanes and major Sandy-like storms, according to NOAA, although these systems will probably grow to hold more precipitation. And as the big spinners continue to pound America, they'll likely cause more damage due to higher sea levels pushing the tides farther inland:

These are just a few random things I found interesting while poking around in NOAA View. Snap crackle pop – here are fires that were active at the end of October:

Snow and ice cover in the U.S. for the first week of November:

This is the current global rainfall as seen by satellites. "This rainfall data is especially important for monitoring offshore precipitation events before they impact land," NOAA says. "In general, the highest rainfall totals are found in tropical areas, where warm water and air temperatures create belts of precipitation":

Rainfall is quite different from the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, seen here for this week (lighter blues are really dripping-wet air):

And finally, travel down to the deepest part of the ocean with this bathymetric landscape of the sea floor. The black, sythe-shaped fissure to the south of Japan is the Mariana Trench, which sinks to depths of about 6.8 miles:

Images courtesy of NOAA View Data Imagery Portal

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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