[Audio begins with almost 2 minutes of alarming media clips on recent storms in U.S. and Europe – to listen, click the title above]
Do these media reports worry you? Take a deep breath. Humans are hard-wired to fear extreme climate events. And not just humans. My big German Shepard dog always headed into the bathtub with every bolt of lightening – even though she was relatively safe inside the house. Mammals instinctively don’t like big wind storms, big piles of snow, or big waves crashing against the shore.
These are not the first big storms.. A trio of storms that hit Europe in 1999 were worse than the January blow, and killed more people. History still remembers violent weather there in the 1300s. People thought those storms were caused by God, due to our sins, rather than climate change.
Our only remedy for this natural fear, and our religious reactions to it, is science. The problem is: now the science is scarier than Jove or Jehovah.
The new mantra goes like this. Meteorologists say you cannot PROVE this latest strong weather came from climate change. Weather is unpredictable, they say, which makes us wonder, why do we bother paying all those forecasters in the first place?
Climate scientists agree the causes of a specific storm cannot be certain, BUT, the long-term impacts of altering the atmosphere ARE predictable.
The Earth will get hotter. A lot of that heat will be soaked up by the oceans. Warmer oceans mean more water gets sucked up into the atmosphere, causing more violent precipitation – which could be rain or snow. The hotter oceans also add more power to existing storms. We may not get more storms, but those that do form will be stronger.
Nobody needs to be reminded that all kinds of hurricane records were set in 2005. Hurricane Wilma was the biggest ever recorded, and Katrina the most damaging to a developed city. There were so many hurricanes the weather experts ran out of internationally accepted names for them. Then, 2006 was relatively quiet. Again, the studies of the long-term records by people like Kerry Emmanuel show we may not have more storms, but they will be more powerful.
What does it all mean?
Let’s make a couple of home-spun observations about this recent series of storms.
[media clip, the whole continent]
Number One: this was a transcontinental storm. Within the same week, weird and wild weather stretched all the way from California to New England – and hit England, Scandinavia, and all of Europe from West to East. Most of the Northern Hemisphere was engulfed an extreme weather event. That is worth worrying about. As the climate becomes destabilized by carbon emissions, and various feedbacks, is it possible we may see global storms? Just think about what this might mean to the economy, and how limited rescue efforts might be in a future super storm.
[clip “We don’t know when the electricity will come back on”]
Observation Number Two: The European storm was not a hurricane. Hurricanes, and their tropical counterparts the typhoons, involve a spinning mass of air and water.
The speed and damage of the wind depend upon rotation around a central vortex. But the blast that hit Europe was described as a river of wind. It was almost as though the Jet Stream had dipped down to Earth, blowing along the surface at over 100 miles an hour. That is the sort of science fiction scenario described in the 1994 book “Heavy Weather” by Bruce Sterling. Following a period of industrial damage to the Earth’s atmosphere, a more-or-less permanent storm developed in the U.S. mid-West, a new category beyond our current ranking system.
In the real world, meteorologists are already discussing the need to add a new class, the F6 hurricane, to top the existing worst case F5 type. With climate change, they expect storms stronger than anything humans have seen in the last 10,000 years.
But again, the rest of us have to wonder if the Jet Stream will not become a bigger factor for the Northern Hemisphere. When we looked at the big satellite pictures and maps, there was a strong line running right across the Southern half of North America, and then jagging up toward Europe. Are disturbances to the Jet Stream linked to transcontinental storms like the one we just experienced?
Observation Three: North Americans already know the price of their fruits and vegetables will go up in the next few weeks. That is because up to 75% of the fruit and winter vegetables for North America come from just a few valleys in Southern California. Those valleys were hit by freezing temperatures that put ice around the crops when only 30 percent had been harvested. Governor Schwartznegger estimated a billion dollar loss for the citrus industry alone.
The point is: climate instability will damage the world’s ability to feed itself. Higher prices for oranges are only an inconvenience for the rich, but the poorest people will starve, by the millions, as rising temperatures, storms, and reduced water supplies reduce our output of wheat, corn, and rice. Lester Brown of the World Resources Institute says just a half degree temperature increase could reduce rice production by 20%. And we are going to get a lot more than that – perhaps two to five degrees change.
This storm is an early warning about the coming food deficit as climate destabilizes agriculture.
It’s hard to say how people will react. Like passengers rushing to the high side of the boat, there has been a stampede of political pronouncements on climate change action. Ultra conservatives, – even big oil companies – are saying it is time to act. The media are developing climate change desks, and newspaper devote pages to it. It’s the hot topic for now.
Of course, humans have a notoriously short attention span. Soon we’ll all be sick of hearing about it, and the big media spotlight will move on to some other celebrity scandal or war.
Meanwhile, on the more local level, millions of homeowners are eyeing the beloved trees around their yard and street much more suspiciously. We can already hear the chain saws humming to cut down big trees before they fall on the family home or municipal building. We’ll denude our cities, chopping out our best smog protectors, just to be safe from the new 21st Century winds.
Expect another big push to move more power lines underground. Our old system of poles and pylons are not ready for Jet Stream-like winds at ground level. We can’t function without our electric juice, so main transmission lines, and common street distribution systems may go underground, just to keep the lights on.
Some ocean-side real-estate may go down in value, or be relegated to seasonal use. Storm surges will wipe out billions of dollars in value, and insurance will be impossible to get. We may have to put most of the State of Florida in that category.
One more conclusion: as the decade progresses, the price of food will continue to escalate – from a minor budget item to something as large as the mortgage.
The ocean grabs enough heat to act like a 30 year buffer. Our current climate troubles come from Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from the late 1970’s. But experts estimate half of our greenhouse gas emissions went into the atmosphere since 1970. That means you ain’t’ seen nothing yet. It also means that all the new clean energy we add now, and all the CO2 we manage to conserve and reduce, will have no impact until about 2036. For the first time in our recent consumerist history, we will have to act for the next generation, even though there is no direct benefit for ourselves. Can we do it? Or will we party like it’s 1999.
It is true we can’t blame one storm on climate change. But we do know some storms will be much worse because of global warming. Those extreme events may finally spook the herd into action.
In the meanwhile, I also think that meteorologists are just humans too. When older people tell newscasters “I’ve never seen anything like this”; when new records are set; when the German train system closes down for the first time – Hell they didn’t even close the whole system when it was being bombed in World War Two! – the rest of us are not over-reacting.
Nature is trying to tell us something. We are doing something wrong, and it isn’t mystical or religious. It is factual, measurable, and all powered by fossil fuels.
This is Alex Smith reporting from Radio Ecoshock. Try out our full-time environment radio station on the Net at www.ecoshock.org – or subscribe to our free podcast.