Tag Archives: global warming

Eastern US Bitten by its own Global Warming Tail

by Joel Gunn

Digging out of the snow in Boston.

Digging out of the snow in Boston.

I have sympathy for the high profile scientists who are struggling with the politics of global warming: Did this or that weather event occur because of global warming? See for example this New York Times post (and the several updates) in which climate scientists address the effects of global warming on the winter Olympics.  However, if you believe in thermodynamics and the interlinking of the atmosphere-ocean circulation and life processes, and that the world is warming, there is only one conclusion you can come to. Everything that is happening is to a greater or lesser degree a product of global warming. There is a legitimate question as to what degree the causes of individual events are apportioned to that trend and what part is attributable to chaotic forces. The tendency is, perhaps wisely, for scientists to hide behind chaotic forces when the politics gets too hot. However, the only real question is how the events and trend fit together, and that is admittedly complicated. But, since we have not lived with this particular change before, observation and model building have to take the lead. You can see the scientists struggling with these questions in the later parts of the blog, and we as citizens of the globe should also participate in thinking this through.

Jet stream and polar vortex.

Jet stream and polar vortex.

A good example is our current discussion of the wandering fragments of polar vortex and the effects they have had on our weather. When I first started seeing weather reports about the polar vortex I said, how can this be? Probably the first really interesting article I read on the behavior of the atmosphere was in the ’70s by Angell and Korshover, people with a government agency who were measuring the atmosphere in many very interesting ways. Their article was about the behavior of the polar vortex. In fact, they were discussing the reason for the cold weather in the mid ’70s. Who recalls that in the winter of ’76-’77 it was so cold the Ohio River froze over? I was sure that the Ice Ages were coming back.

Chicago over frozen Lake Michigan.

Chicago seen over frozen Lake Michigan.

Our present day relationship to the polar vortex has crept out less directly but more interestingly. After the initial reports appeared, the pieces of the global weather puzzle began to leak out. Someone came on television and claimed that it was because the weakening of the circumpolar jet that ordinarily pins in the polar vortex. That helped some. Then a friend sent me a newsletter about a warm pool of water in the Gulf of Alaska. This was also something I recall reading about in the 70s. From that I was familiar with how that pool turns the jet stream up into Canada at which point it zooms down on eastern United States bringing chilly air with it. I have no problem seeing that an arm of the tropical jet thundering around the warm pool and into Canada in the winter would throw the Arctic jet into disarray and freeing the polar vortex to wreak havoc.

NASA image of the first polar vortex event.

NASA image of this winter’s first polar vortex event.

The real question is why that pool is so persistent? Usually it goes away in the fall and the jet stream and the airmass that goes with it assume a cozier route across the US. A possibility is the current solar maximum, weak though it be, but what is the mechanism to warm that pool? The Gulf of Alaska is a long way north for it to be warmed much directly by the sun this time of the year.

Then came another startling observation my friend noticed. Scientists were finding that strong westward passage of air along the equator was sinking atmospheric heat into the Pacific along the equator +/-10 degrees latitude. This seems to be a new phenomenon and worries me. Does it mean that the atmosphere is so hot from global warming that processes are active to cool it by sinking the excess heat we caused into the ocean? Can salmon and other Pacific fish survive such a thing?

Extreme drought in the West (those are mature trees above the waterline).

Extreme drought in the West (those are mature trees above the waterline).

Since then I have been thinking that this could be the warming mechanism for the Gulf of Alaska pool. If the Pacific is being warmed by winds that are sinking atmospheric heat into both atmosphere and ocean, then the Japanese Current could be drawing that warm water around the Pacific with the resulting warm pool in the Gulf of Alaska. The next bit of news I will be watching for is for someone who studies Pacific temperatures to confirm that the latter link is in truth the case.

If all of that is true, then there is little mystery about why the winter is cold in eastern US. It also might suggest that the condition will persist until the thermodynamic balances between atmosphere and ocean, equator and pole, are redressed. How long could that take: ten years, a 1000 years? Perhaps a simulation might be able to work the 10/1000 years question out providing a bit of window on the future.

Seaside Heights, NJ after Sandy.

Seaside Heights, NJ after Sandy.

I have always thought that it is one of the great ironies of the current age that people in eastern US, perhaps the greatest perpetrators of global warming in the world, are being cooled by global warming. This is something else that has been going on for a long time, maybe since the 80s. It interesting that the cooling process has turned mean this winter and bitten us with stinging cold. This is not the type of lesson in global warming we are used to getting from the weather.

Environmentalism and the Future

by Matt McKinnon

Let me begin by stating that I consider myself an environmentalist.  I recycle almost religiously.  I compost obsessively.  I keep the thermostat low in winter and high in summer.  I try to limit how much I drive, but as the chauffeur for my three school-age sons, this is quite difficult.  I support environmental causes and organizations when I can, having been a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

1I find the arguments of the Climate Change deniers uninformed at best and disingenuous at worst.  Likewise, the idea of certain religious conservatives that it is hubris to believe that humans can have such a large effect on God’s creation strikes me as theologically silly and even dishonest.  And while I understand and even sympathize with the concerns of those folks whose businesses and livelihoods are tied to our current fossil-fuel addiction, I find their arguments that economic interests should override environmental concerns to be lacking in both ethics and basic forethought.

That being said, I have lately begun to ponder not just the ultimate intentions and goals of the environmental movement, but the very future of our planet.

Earth and atmospheric scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature is increasing, most probably as a result of human activity.  And that even if we severely limited that activity (which we are almost certainly not going to do anytime soon), the consequences are going to be dire: rising temperatures will lead to more severe storms, melting polar ice caps, melting permafrost (which in turn will lead to the release of even more carbon dioxide, increasing the warming), rising ocean levels, lowering of the oceans’ ph levels (resulting in the extinction of the coral reefs), devastating floods in some places along with crippling droughts in others.

2And according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 (less than 100 years) 25% of all species of plants and land animals may be extinct.

Basically, our not-too-distant future may be an earth that cannot support human life.

Now, in my more misanthropic moments, I have allowed myself to indulge in the idea that this is exactly what the earth needs.  That this in fact should be the goal of any true environmental concern: the extinction of humanity.  For only then does the earth as a planet capable of supporting other life stand a chance.  (After all, the “environment” will survive without life, though it won’t be an especially nice place to visit, much less inhabit, especially for a human.)

3And a good case can be made that humans have been destroying the environment in asymmetrical and irrevocable ways since at least the Neolithic Age when we moved from hunter and gatherer culture to the domestication of plants and animals along with sustained agriculture.  Humans have been damaging the environment ever since.  (Unlike the beaver, as only one example of a “keystone species,” whose effect on the environment in dam building has an overwhelming positive and beneficial impact on countless other species as well as the environment itself.)

4So unless we’re seriously considering a conservation movement that takes us back to the Paleolithic Era instead of simply reducing our current use and misuse of the earth, then we’re really just putting off the inevitable.

But all that being said, whatever the state of our not-too-distant future, the inevitability of the “distant future” is undeniable—for humans, as well as beavers and all plants and animals, and ultimately the earth itself.  For the earth, like all of its living inhabitants, has a finite future.

Around 7.5 billion years or so is a reasonable estimate.  And then it will most probably be absorbed in the sun, which will have swollen into a red giant.

5(Unless, as some scientists predict, the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy, resulting in cataclysmic effects that cannot be predicted.)

At best, however, this future only includes the possibility of earth supporting life for another billion years or so.  For by then, the increase in the sun’s brightening will have evaporated all of the oceans.

6Of course, long before that, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (ironically enough) will have diminished well below the quantity needed to support plant life, destroying the food chain and causing the extinction of all animal species as well.

And while that’s not good news, the worse news is that humans will have been removed from the equation long before the last holdouts of carbon-based life-forms eventually capitulate.

(Ok, so some microbes may be able to withstand the dry inhospitable conditions of desert earth, but seriously, who cares about the survival of microbes?)

Now if we’re optimistic about all of this (irony intended), the best-case scenario is for an earth that is able to support life as we know it for at most another half billion more years.  (Though this may be a stretch.)  And while that seems like a really long time, we should consider that the earth has already been inhabited for just over 3 and a half billion years.

So having only a half billion years left is sort of like trying to enjoy the last afternoon of a four-day vacation.


Enjoy the rest of your day.