SUMMARY: Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers: Jet Stream waves & Polar Vortex. Dr. Daniel Brooks: parasites survive warming better than we do. Radio Ecoshock 150304

We thought global warming would be gentle and kinda nice. Instead it’s weird and extreme.

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In the 1990’s we talked about “global warming”. The planet would slowly warm, scientists told us. Maybe that would be good for people living with cold winters – kind of like Florida slowly moving to your house. Then we learned other things would be affected, like rainfall and rising seas, so we called it “climate change”. Around 2008, scientist John Holdren said it should be “climate disruption”.

Meanwhile, Europe has been back and forth between cold, and strings of rainy storms. Instead of nice warm winters, the Eastern United States has experienced a series of Arctic cold waves and record-setting snowfalls. I know my East Coast listeners are praying these kind of vicious winters are not the new normal. Is it possible they are?

In a 2012 paper titled “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes“, Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University offered a clear answer, based on observations. The Jet Stream, that high air current that can drive weather patterns, is now slower and wavier, due to warming in the Arctic. Her work has generated a little criticism and a lot of support.

Now three years later, Dr. Francis is back with co-author Stephen J Vavrus, with an update. They say we have entered a new era driven by something called “Arctic amplification”. With so much at stake, it’s a pleasure to welcome Jennifer Francis back to Radio Ecoshock. Her latest paper is “Evidence for a wavier jet stream in response to rapid Arctic warming.” That was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in January 2015.

Here’s a great explanation of the Polar Vortex weather and the Arctic science by Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm.

I’d like to look further into several issues raised in this interview with Jennifer Francis.


First of all: why does this new paper say we are in a “new era” of Arctic amplification, or AA. We have reliable temperature and other weather readings from the Arctic starting in 1940. According to this paper, Starting in the 1990’s, in the same time frame as sea ice declined, Arctic amplification could be seen in all four seasons – something not seen in records from the time records began in 1940, to 1990. So that’s one sign.

Going further, the paper says, quote:

It is important to note the recent emergence of the signal of AA from the noise of natural variability: since ~1995 near the surface and since ~2000 in the lower troposphere. This short period presents a substantial challenge to the detection of robust signals of atmospheric response amid the noise of natural variability. Thus for this study we define the period from 1995 to 2013 as the ‘AA era.’

I spent a little time with Dr. Francis on the natural cycle called the Arctic Oscillation, and sometimes called the Northern annular mode. We’ll stick with Arctic Oscillation or AO.


“When the AO index is negative, there tends to be high pressure in the polar region, weaker zonal winds, and greater movement of frigid polar air into middle latitudes.”

That’s from Hansen’s 2009 paper “If It’s That Warm, How Come It’s So Damned Cold?“. It’s too bad climate denier Senator James Inhofe is too dumb to understand it.

I specifically asked Jennifer Francis about the Arctic Oscillation, because if that’s all it is, the awful weather pattern in the U.S. Northeast will just go away when the Arctic Oscillation goes positive. Francis has three answers really. First: the Arctic Oscillation is not a final indicator of getting a disturbed Jet Stream, and a Polar Vortex in North America. This past winter had a positive AO, and still got hit with polar weather further south.

Secondly, we can see the pole is warming, with ice melting, permafrost thawing, and a much warmer winter in Alaska – because of climate change.

Finally though, the super-cold winters in Eastern North America will get less frequent over time because we are warming the whole planet. I did a Radio Ecoshock show titled “Summer in March” in 2012 because that winter was so freakily warm. Folks were playing tennis in New York city parks in January that year. Parents in Quebec couldn’t get the traditional outdoor skating rinks to freeze.

The unpleasant answer is we have caused climate disruption. Expect the unexpected, good and bad.


As far as other scientists expressing doubt about the work of Francis and her collegues – that is what scientists do! Underneath those quiet proper exterior, scientists are actually cut-throat thinkers. They live to disprove what others thought was real.

There has been some criticism of the work published by Jennifer Francis. For example, in December I interviewed Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the Snow and Ice Data Center. He hesitated to agree with your work, and suggested things like Tropical Storm Nuri hitting Alaska are also important factors. There was even a paper out from Elizabeth Barnes of Colorado State University which said she couldn’t duplicate the Arctic-Jet Stream connection with her methods. You can download or listen to that December 2014 Radio Ecoshock interview with Kevin Trenberth here.

After the interview, a listener sent this link to a seemingly contradictory paper by another Radio Ecoshock guest, Noah Diffenbaugh.

But I’m with Jennifer Francis on this. First of all, the observation of the distortion of the Jet Stream is indisputable. We are experiencing this now, all too often. We can argue about whether there is enough proof that warming in the Arctic is causing a wavier Jet Stream, but so far it all make a lot of sense. It’s based on the basic physics that warmth will move toward cold. That’s what powers our weather systems, the difference between heat at the equator and cold at the poles. Along with the spin of the Earth, the temperature difference creates wind on the planet. It doesn’t seem possible to me that the Arctic could be up to 30 degrees warmer than in the past, without affecting weather world-wide.

Further research published in August 2014 by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) supports the wavy Jet Stream – Arctic connection, using different methods.

If you read through the paper “Evidence for a wavier jet stream in response to rapid Arctic warming” you’ll have to learn a few new terms. Just crank up Wikipedia and Google searches. As a reward, you’ll get the big picture of what is driving weird weather in your world.


Evidence is growing that the Paris Climate talks at the end of 2015 are an exercise in futility. The European Union, considered the most climate-aware and progressive block at the table, are proposing emission levels which scientist I talk with say are not survivable, at least not for human civilization.

The latest document from the EU calls for cuts in greenhouse gas emission of “at least” 60% from 2010 levels by 2050. First of all – what happened to the 1990 greenhouse gas levels used in most previous talks? Global greenhouse gas emissions went up 24% from 1990 to 2004, and rose another 3% annually pretty well every year since 2004. We’re way, way higher than 1990. So a 60% cut from 2010 levels doesn’t mean very much.

The kicker is even if we make that goal, we are headed for a climate catastrophe, if we are still emitting 40% of 2010 levels in 2050, scientists guarantee polar ice will disappear over the coming centuries, in an unstoppable wave of climate disruption. A sixty percent cut by 2020 might stave off the worst.

Keep in mind that most other big polluters, especially the United States and China, are promising nothing like the European goals. And goals a generation away aren’t likely to be met anyway.

How to international politicians get at these deadly greenhouse gas targets? They believe in fairy tales. And governments get that science fiction from the scientists they hire. I’m talking about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC works out possible futures they call “Representative Concentration Pathways” or RCP’s. Learn that jargon, because they are talking about your future.

These days, there are three big representative concentration pathways in the latest IPCC assessment, the one that will be used by diplomats in Paris. The two lowest carbon pathways are shown on graphs. But the IPCC doesn’t say those graphs assume that humanity will use a non-existent technology to geoengineer the planet, to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide.

A couple of Radio Ecoshock listeners alerted me to this dangerous charade. It’s explained best by the UK film-maker and climate blogger Nick Breeze at envisionation. Here’s the audio argument from Nick’s latest film warning.

In this program I play the audio from a new short film by Nick Breeze, titled “Survivable IPCC Projections Are Based On Science Fiction”. You can find it at Nick does some great interviews, often with prominent climate scientists. It pays to keep visiting his site.

Watch Nick’s video here. And read all about it in Nick’s blog entry here.


So the Paris Climate talks are already a sell-out of humanity and all species, even if they are a “success” which is doubtful. I’d say the best climate activists can do at this point, is to push their country governments to do far more, and to include a new vision of naturally capturing carbon back into the soil.

As we’ve heard from recent Radio Ecoshock guests, like Thomas Goreau (interview here) and Kristin Ohlson (interview here), we can lower the burden of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by changing the way we do agriculture. That will need a parallel shift in our whole economy and lifestyles, but it can work. Unlike the fairy-tale tech of carbon capture and storage, we do know how to put large amounts of carbon back into the soil.

So far the Climate Talks do not even include the soil carbon option. Let’s try and change that, before it’s really, really too late. Get soil carbon into the Paris Climate talks. Pass the word.


Humans are changing the planet in many ways. But we are not alone out there. There are diseases looking for new conquests, and parasites being spread around the world by air travel, shipping, and resource extraction. Experts warn we already in a crisis of Emerging Infectious Disease, or EID.

We have one of those experts with us now. Dr. Daniel Brooks was a zoology professor at the University of Toronto. He is now a Senior Research Fellow with the Manter Laboratory of Parasitology, at the University of Nebraska. Dr. Brooks is also a visiting scholar in Brazil and Hungary.

This week’s interview with Daniel Brooks has a couple of key thoughts.

First, while humans mentally long for a single threat where we can focus, the natural world is too complex to accommodate our need. Unlike the movie “The Andromeda Strain”, the experts don’t think we will run into a single giant disease or parasite to knock off our species. AIDS, Ebola and West Nile virus arrive and manage to stay around, but don’t do us in.


By the way, if I sounded disappointed in the West Nile virus after the initial hype, here’s some news. The extra-warm dry conditions in California brought the highest level of West Nile virus ever seen in that state. There were 798 human cases in 2014, five times the number recorded in 2011 at the start of this big drought. Twenty nine people died.

You might think drier weather means less mosquito diseases. But streams and even rivers that normally keep running enough to stay clear of mosquito larvae, end up with more stagnant pools to breed. Plus, with fewer water sources, more species come to those that are left, meaning a better transfer station for diseases to all kinds of species.

The Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito Control is warning Californians to expect “an intense West Nile virus year.” It’s just another unexpected spin-off of climate change, and the very things Dr. Brooks warned us about.


But the first big thought from the Brooks interview is : with further warming we will be hurt by a thousand cuts. Picture finding a new beetle killing off your apple tree. It’s been brought over from Asia in a furniture shipment. The bug carries a virus that slowly kills the tree. That gets into orchards all over. The cost of fruit goes up.

Meanwhile, house cats get a new virus originally from the tropics, but now capable of over-wintering in warmer climates. Vet bills, already in the billions of dollars in North America, go up.

There’s another nasty tropical disease likely to arrive from the Carribean. It’s “chikungunya”. Before 2013, this Asian and African disease was never before seen in the Americas. It’s here now, and likely to arrive in the southern United States, just like Dengue fever is now in Florida and Texas.


The second big take-away is that scientists have discovered that disease agents are very tough. In the interview, we heard about a 100 million-year-old parasite that survived the great asteroid strike 65 million years ago. When the dinosaur fish is specialized in went extinct, the parasite did not, and appears now in Arctic birds.

It’s intriguing to hear that parasites can revert to ancient abilities in their genes to adapt to new hosts, and new challenges. As Dr. Brook warns at the end, the idea that we are in a golden age of health is an illusion, and there is no evidence that humans will win in the end, as climate change combines with international trade and expanding human populations. Unseen in our Twitter world, humans are always prone to becoming food for something else.

I didn’t have time in this interview to get into a new concept in parasitic threats that Dr. Brooks and other scientists are using. It’s called the Stockholm Paradigm. Please don’t confuse that with Stockholm Syndrome, where a captive comes to love his or her captor.

After interviewing Daniel Brooks, journalist Dominic Basulto in the Washington Times summarized it this way:

The new thinking, known as the ‘Stockholm Paradigm’ (not to be confused with the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’), combines four different ecological concepts – ecological fitting, the geographic mosaic theory of co-evolution, taxon pulses and the oscillation hypothesis – to conjecture that pathogens may not really have as hard of a time finding a new host as we thought. They may already have the ‘ancestral genetic capabilities’ to switch to new hosts that are genetically close enough to the original hosts.

The Stockholm Paradigm is exactly the type of matrix of causes that breaks our simple human minds. It’s hard for us to think about, but that’s how nature operates, and simple is not a requirement for reality.


Meanwhile, the news is full of more examples of how climate change will influence the appearance of new diseases and pests. Just this past week, a new study from Oslo, Norway re-wrote the history books of how the plague hit Europe in the 1300’s, and kept coming back for hundreds of years afterwards.

According to the book “Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” about 90% of the people in Hopei province of China died from the plague in 1331. Fifteen years later the disease made it to the Volga River in Russia. The Mongol empire partly ended because their pony express system, which likely spread the disease, couldn’t find enough riders left alive. A hat tip to Scott Gardner at the Manter Lab in Nebraska for that book

Scientists now think that periods of warmer and wetter weather in Asia stimulated the populations of plague-carrying ticks. And these were more likely carried by gerbils, not the black rat. The gerbils likely spread the plague to pack animals plying the Silk Road trade route to Europe, rather than just arriving by ship.

Evidence seems to show that the plague did not stay resident in Europe’s rats, but instead kept arriving from Asia following warm weather spells there. Rats carrying the plague were themselves killed off, rather than harboring the horrible disease.

Europe was re-infected dozens of times. Investigating over 7,000 outbreaks of the plague, scientists from the University of Oslo found that weather in Europe was not a factor. But a warming spell in Asia was. The plague arrived about 15 years after each warming period. Like today, other factors like immigration and wars also helped spread the disease.

We don’t know all the surprises coming our way, as this next warming pumps up the population of disease-bearing organisms. Oh, and by the way, a brand new deadly virus was just discovered in a man in Kansas at the end of February. He’d been bitten by ticks in the Spring. It took a while for the US Centers for Disease Control to realize this was a brand new virus, never seen before.

Check out this Washington Post article about our guest: “The Weird Way that Climate Change Could Lead to New Disease Outbreaks Around the World”.


The best we can do, Brooks says, is (a) admit climate change is real and then (b) start funding research and building infrastructure to deal with new pests and diseases we know are coming. Right now even in the West hospitals are operating on a just-barely basis. Agriculture is likewise dependent on a business model with no back-up system, and no fall-back position. It’s not like we are rationally ready for a thousand challenges from the micro-world, much less the insects.

Here is the source for the new paper, taken from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln press release:

“Brooks’ and Hoberg’s article, ‘Evolution in action: climate change, biodiversity dynamics and emerging infectious disease,’ is part of a Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B issue on ‘Climate change and vector-borne diseases of humans,’ edited by Paul Parham, a specialist in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College in London.”


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That’s our time for this week. There are some solutions, but they all start with accepting what is real.

I’m Alex Smith. Thanks for listening, and join us again next week on Radio Ecoshock.