Another One Bites The Dust

Last month was the warmest October ever recorded and the sixth straight month to set record temperatures. It also was the first month to surpass the average temperature by more than 1 degree Celsius, according to new NASA data revealed Tuesday.

October was 1.04 degrees Celsius (1.87 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than the base period of 1951 to 1980 used as a reference to measure the long-term average. That marks the greatest departure from a month’s average heat since weather record-keeping began in 1880, beating January 2007 as the most anomalous month by 0.07 degrees Celsius.

Surpassing the 1-degree mark is significant because it puts the Earth halfway to the internationally accepted limit for avoiding the worst consequences of climate change such as drought, mass migration and superstorms. Putting a stop to climate change before it reaches the 2-degree milestone is the main goal of the Paris Climate Summit beginning Nov. 3.

October’s heat comes in a banner year of record-breaking weather events. July was the hottest month ever recorded. In the United States this year, Florida recorded its hottest March to May.California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, and Washington all logged their hottest Junes.

The shockingly high temperatures in October all but guarantees that 2015 will be the world’s hottest year ever recorded, beating the record set in…2014.

A Totally Metal Weather Forecast

Scientists have determined that the weather forecast on PSO J318.5-22, a mysterious object that does not orbit any star but floats freely, is pretty extreme.

Based on data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, researchers from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have determined that the orphan world’s climate consists of thick clouds of hot dust and droplets of molten iron rain. Their study was published Oct. 30 in The Astrophysical Journal

PSO J318.5-22, which is similar to a brown dwarf star and sits some 75 light-years from Earth, was discovered in 2013. The strange world is around the same size as Jupiter, but has roughly eight times the mass. The object is not massive enough to initiate nuclear fusion in its core like a star would so it glows feebly.

To observe the object, the researchers took hundreds of infrared images of PSO J318.55 over a period time.

The researchers analyzed different cloud patches, allowing them to determine weather patterns. They noted that this type of analysis would not have been possible had PSO J318.5-22 orbited a parent star, as most planets and similar objects do.

Scientists still aren’t sure why PSO J318.5-22 is isolated and free-floating in space, but there are two theories: PSO J318.5-22 may have formed as a planet around a star and got ejected from that system, or it formed in isolation, condensing out of a star-forming cloud, similar to how brown dwarfs form.

Smell the Rain

Have you ever smelled the aroma that lingers after it rains?

Scientists call it “petrichor,” and since the 1960s, they’ve believed it comes from oils and chemicals that are released when raindrops hit the ground.

Now, for the first time, scientists at MIT have used high-speed cameras to show how that “rain smell” gets into the air, just check out the video for a look at their footage:

For the research, Buie and post-doctoral researcher Youngsoo Joung filmed raindrops as they hit a variety of surfaces, including 16 different soil samples. They also varied the intensity and speed of the “rainfall”–from light to heavy–by dropping the water from different heights.

They found that when a raindrop hits a porous surface, tiny bubbles form inside the droplet. These bubbles grow bigger and float upward–like bubbles in a glass of champagne. When the bubbles reach the surface, they burst and release a “fizz of aerosols” into the air.

They also noticed that light and moderate rain, which falls at a slower rate, tends to produce more aerosols compared to the heavy rain–which explains why petrichor is more common after a light rain.

The research was published on Jan. 14 in the journal Nature Communications.

Special Snowflakes

Snowflakes may not be so unique after all.

While no one snowflake is exactly the same as another on a molecular level, it turns out that all snowflakes fall into one of 35 different shapes. Just take a look at this infographic of the different snowflake shapes from chemistry teacher Andy Brunnin, who authors the blog Compound Interest:

The graphic uses data from the global classification of snow crystals, ice crystals, and solid precipitation published in the journal Atmospheric Research in 2013.

A snowflake starts as a tiny grain of dust or pollen floating in a cloud. Water vapor from the air sticks to the grain and freezes, forming into a tiny hexagonal crystal. From there, more vapor condenses on the crystal as it travels to the ground, and the snowflake’s “arms” take shape.

Smithsonian reported that, though snowflakes are stunning to observe, scientists classify snowflakes and analyze how they form to better understand how crystals may be used in a host of applications, from silicon to semiconductors in computers and electronics.

Did Cold Weather Cause the Salem Witch Trials?

Historical records indicate that, worldwide, witch hunts occur more often during cold periods, possibly because people look for scapegoats to blame for crop failures and general economic hardship. Fitting this pattern, scholars argue that cold weather may have spurred the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692.

The theory, first laid out by the economist Emily Oster in her senior thesis at Harvard University a decade ago, holds that the most active era of witchcraft trials in Europe coincided with a 400+ year period of lower-than-average temperatures known to climatologists as the “little ice age.” Oster suggested that as the climate varied from year to year during this cold period, lower temperatures correlated with higher numbers of witchcraft accusations.

The correlation may not be surprising in light of textual evidence from the period: popes and scholars alike clearly believed witches were capable of controlling the weather, and therefore crippling food production.

The Salem witch trials fell within an extreme cold spell that lasted from 1680 to 1730, one of the chilliest segments of the little ice age. The notion that weather may have instigated those trials is being revived by Salem State University historian Tad Baker in his book, A Storm of Witchcraft (Oxford University Press, 2013). Building on Oster’s thesis, Baker found clues in diaries and sermons that suggest a harsh New England winter really may have set the stage for accusations of witchcraft.

According to the Salem News, one clue is a document that mentions a key player in the Salem drama, Rev. Samuel Parris, whose daughter Betty was the first to become ill in the winter of 1691-1692 because of supposed witchcraft. In that document, “Rev. Parris is arguing with his parish over the wood supply,” Baker said. A winter fuel shortage would have made for a fairly miserable colonial home, and the higher the misery quotient, the more likely you are to see witches.

Psychology obviously played an important role in the Salem events; the young girls who accused their fellow townsfolk of witchcraft are believed to have been suffering from a strange psychological condition known as mass hysteria. However, the new theory suggests the hysteria may have sprung from dire economic conditions.

Weather patterns continue to trigger witchcraft accusations even today in many parts of Africa, where witch killings persist thanks to Christian missionary work. According to a 2003 analysis by the Berkeley economist Edward Miguel, extreme rainfall, either too much or too little, coincides with a significant increase in the number of witch killings in Tanzania. The victim is typically the oldest woman in a household, killed by her own family.