climate checkmate

July 7, 2012

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The path a week ago of the heat-fueled derecho.//photo from National Weather Service, Storm Prediction Center.

Really, it’s too hot to think clearly. The forecast for this weekend shows the temperature reaching 103 degrees F in my community of Clarksville, MD. A couple nights ago, the last of our climate refugees departed our home, including my twenty-something daughter and her dog and numerous friends of my teenage son who were left without power and sometimes water for days after the violent and sudden derecho a week ago. That storm was fueled along its 600-mile course by energy from an intense heat wave that stretched from Illinois to DC. The ferocity of the June 29 event has some scientists calling it a “super derecho.”

Superlatives are super common these days. Weather.com says, “The number of record highs tied or broken across the nation is staggering” in the last two weeks. “4500 record highs and counting,” its headline says.

NOAA says 15,000 high temperature records were set during March for the contiguous states. May was the second warmest on record. All those high temperatures made for the “warmest spring, warmest year-to-date, and warmest 12-month period the nation has experienced since recordkeeping began in 1895.”  NOAA said the cold season, defined as October 2011 to March 2012, was the second warmest on record for the contiguous United States, topped only by the season of 1999-2000. Perhaps NOAA will soon have to call those months the season formerly known as cold.

At the same time, in Colorado, that state’s most-destructive wildfires were brought on by a deadly combination of lightning, persistent drought and heat. In the last two years, other record-breaking fires burned in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. And in the past decade, record fires have burned across 10 states, most in the West. Researchers from the University of California, in a study in Ecosphere, concluded that “almost all of North America and most of Europe is projected to see a jump in the frequency of wildfires, primarily because of increasing temperature trends.”

Breaking temperature records is expected, but as Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO, said on NPR: “There should be an equal number of highs and lows. And in the 1950s and the ’60s and ’70s, that was the case. But by the time we got to the 2000s, the ratios of highs to lows was about two-to-one and this year so far it’s running at about a ratio of ten-to-one. And so clearly this is just not natural variability anymore. There’s something more than that that’s rearing its head.”

At the same time,  scientists are detecting a “hotspot” of accelerated sea-level rise along the coast of North America, north from Cape Hatteras, NC.  Researchers in another study conclude that “aggressive mitigation” won’t stem the rising oceans, even if we are able to get temperatures to stabilize: “With little mitigation, future sea-level rise would be large and continue unabated for centuries. Though sea-level rise cannot be stopped for at least the next several hundred years, with aggressive mitigation it can be slowed down, and this would buy time for adaptation measures to be adopted.

Extreme storms? Check.

Hotter weather? Check.

Wildfires? Check

Prolonged droughts? Check.

All the consequences that scientists have said will come with climate change? Check.

This doesn’t bode well for civilization as we know it. As Dr. Ben Strauss, chief operating officer and director of Climate Central’s Program on Sea Level Rise,  said recently on WAMU’s “The Diane Rehm Show”: “Climate has varied naturally for all of Earth’s history and it’s undergone very great swings. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have the power to make a big change ourselves. Unfortunately, we do have that power, and we are making one. A very interesting fact is that the climate of the last six [thousand] to 10,000 years has been really abnormally stable. In the history of the Earth, it looks like a billiard table. I mean, the history of the Earth’s climate is like a roller-coaster. The last 10,000 years is like a billiard table. And that’s exactly when agriculture and civilization developed. I find it hard to believe that that’s a coincidence. So right now what we’re doing is we’re trying to bend that billiard table into a roller coaster again. Unfortunately all the evidence I’ve seen points to, you know, this time, it’s humans pushing the climate change.”

Sure, no one knows how much of any one storm or heat wave or drought can be linked to global warming, but scientists say that what they’ve been modeling is indeed happening. If you’ve been smoking for years and get lung cancer, you can’t be certain the cigarettes are to blame…. And the tobacco manufacturers would certainly like you to continue to doubt. We have been relentless in our assault on the planet, with the predictable results….and the fossil fuel industry would be happy if we fail to make the connection and keep on smokin’.

Be sure to check out Mike Tidwell’s essay published in the Baltimore Sun. More fossil fuels from the extreme extraction of natural gas is not the answer, he writes. Also Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post also finds that “the data are beginning to add up.”

-elisabeth hoffman

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