Interesting weather this winter, wasn’t it? Last December brought tornadoes to the south and a blizzard to west Texas. Locally, we set some near-records for daily high temperatures in late December and again in January and February.
Coming on the heels of the Paris Climate Change conference – which resulted in an agreement for nearly every nation in the world to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide through energy efficiency, reforestation, transition to renewable energy sources, and many other means – my first instinct was to attribute the extreme weather to climate change.
Well, I wasn’t entirely wrong.
In December 2010, I wrote an article about the coming of winter - "Slow down and take a cue from nature"
In it, I discussed the fact that in this part of the world, nature takes a break in the winter, and so should we.
Now that we have reached February 2012 with barely a week's worth of winter days thus far (not that I'm complaining, just observing), I find myself wondering what impact an unusually warm "winter" might have on nature & humans.
From what I've read, one warm winter may not have much impact, but several in a row will. And while those impacts may not be evident for many years, given that this warming during winter is a well established trend, the impacts are very real, and may be irreversible.
Two weeks ago, the weather experts were talking about how 2011 could turn out to be the driest July on record for the Chicago area. Well, driving to work today, I heard the news that July 2011 is now officially the wettest on record!
Would Mother Nature please make up her mind?
It's not like these have been "normal" rains either. They have been torrential rains, often accompanied by strong winds, wild lightning storms, fallen trees, electricity outages and flooding. Four or five inches of water falling in an hour. Nine inches in a 24 hour period. And not just one storm like that, but one storm after another, after another.
And, just like the "heat dome" I discussed earlier, this type of weather has been predicted as one of the by-products of global warming: more frequent, extreme weather events. Violent thunderstorms, massive, long-lived tornadoes, more Category 5 hurricanes.
Other predictions are coming to pass too. As reported by the BBC today, a 1,000 square mile area of Alaskan Arctic tundra burned in the summer of 2007. This was as much tundra as had burned cumulatively since 1950. So, for 57 years, an average of 18 acres of tundra burned each year. Then, in one year, 1,000 acres?
Remember, tundra rarely burns, because it is covered with ice and snow much of the year, and then kind of soggy during the very brief growing season. 2007 was a particularly dry year on the Arctic tundra, so, when a lightning strike ignited the fire in July, it was not extinguished until October when heavy snow snuffed it out.
Now, burning Arctic tundra isn't like a grass fire, or even a forest fire. The tundra is a type of habitat characterized by a layer of permafrost that can be as deep as 3 feet. Permafrost is an area of the soil that is always frozen. Only the top-most layer of the ground ever thaws - maybe 4-5 inches at the surface - just enough for small plants to grow in the very brief growing season.
Over millenia, this permafrost layer of perpetually frozen soil has served as a place where atmospheric carbon (CO2) was stored (sequestered). That is no longer the case, however. When permafrost actually dries out due to a combination of longer periods of time without snow cover and drier weather conditions, this previously stored carbon is released into the atmosphere again. Toss a fire on top of that, and the release of carbon is accelerated that much more.
In fact, while the tundra region was once considered a place where there was net storage of carbon each year, today it is a net releaser of carbon each year. Actually, release of carbon & methane, both so-called "greenhouse" gases because of the way they collect in the atmosphere and help to magnify the warming effects of the sun.
If you are like me at all, you are now thinking "Gee, thanks for that depressing bit of information that I can't do anything about!"
But that's when we need to pick ourselves up and change our thinking. We may not be able to directly stop the burning tundra, but each of us can surely start making decisions that will at least contribute in some small way to slowing the global forces that are accelerating around us.
My favorite quote ever is from Gandhi. It hangs on my wall. "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Do what you can. Lead by example. Do it now.
For the month of July, the average high temperature in Chicago is 83.5. So far this year (2010), the average high temp in July is closer to 87. The average last summer was about 80 degrees - one of the coolest July's on record, and certainly part of the reason this month has felt so darn hot!
Last year, I didn't put the air conditioner on once all summer. But last night I slept with the A/C on all night! The combination of heat and humidity was more than I could stand, but 76 degrees sure hit the spot! I think 2005 was the last summer that seemed this hot.
If there is anything to this Global Warming/Climate Change thing (and I believe there is), then these hot summers will become more frequent. That's the point of the two maps at the top of the page - the one on the right shows average temperatures for the eastern US today, and the one on the left shows what they could be in 2050. The take home message is that average temps are predicted to be much higher almost everywhere.
So, our area would be more like southern Missouri? And Northern Wisconsin would be like Central Illinois? And Florida would be mostly under water? Cripes! So in another 40 years, all those Midwestern snowbirds will just stay right here? Sounds like Sun City will need to expand!
We each need to do something - now.
That was the message from Dr. Kathleen Dean Moore at last night's Moral Ground discussion at MCC. If you would like to leave a world to future generations as rich in possibilities as the world we were born into, then you need to take action.