Hot Winter Days

The anti-scientific M.O. of some political conservatives was in full swing during the ‘polar vortex,’ as frigid weather brought south from the Arctic led many commentators to scoff, “look how cold it is, can you believe anyone thinks the Earth is getting warmer?” Coby Beck adds some perspective from climate historian Christopher C. Burt on A Few Things Ill-Considered, writing “cold snaps like this past week’s used to occur every couple of years in the 1800′s,” and more like every 5-10 years in the 1900’s. Meanwhile the last time it got so cold in the U.S. was twenty years ago. Coby says “what is remarkable is that this level of cold has become remarkable”—because it used to be commonplace. As the planet gets warmer, regional weather, unlike average global temperature, remains highly variable. Coby concludes, “this is just what scientists refer to as ‘winter.'”  Or what they used to, anyway.

Greg Laden offers a complementary interpretation, saying the polar vortex is the result of a jet stream increasingly unsettled by the warming of the Arctic. Per the theory of “weather whiplash,” extreme temperatures might become more common as the energized jet stream contorts Arctic air. While the eastern U.S. was suffering bitter cold, northern Europe enjoyed unseasonal warmth; there’s only so much Arctic air to go around.  Which means the northern hemisphere can look forward to hot winter days as surely as very cold ones.  The polar vortex was entirely consistent with global warming, and those who claimed otherwise wore their disingenuity on their sleeves.

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Don’t Teach Your Young to Attack the Planet

Life has been growing on Earth for about 4 billion years, and during that time there have been a handful of mass extinctions that have wiped out a large percentage of complex lifeforms.  Asteroid impact, volcanic eruption, climate change, anoxia, and poison have dispatched untold numbers of once-successful species to total oblivion or a few lucky fossils.  Species also die off regularly for much less spectacular reasons, and altogether about 98% of documented species no longer exist.

Cry me a river, you say, without all that death there would have been no gap for vertebrates, for mammals, for primates, for humanity.  The tyrannosaurus-less world we awoke to find ourselves on had regained an incredible array of plant, animal, fungal, and microbial diversity, exploiting and even seeming to celebrate every ecological niche on the planet.  Our ancestors, a small population of soft, slow-moving meatbags, lifted their hands from the ground and set about smashing, shaping, shooting, burning, cutting and eating their way to the top.  Although human tribes spread to inhabit every continent except Antarctica, the limits of the world remained unknown, no less to tribal cultures than to pre-Columbian Europe.  There was always the promise of more land, more meat, and more resources for the taking—perhaps not within easy reach, but somewhere near the horizon.

Even after Europe discovered the “new” world, attitudes of conquest and dominion were rarely given second thought.  Manifest destiny drove United States citizens from sea to shining sea, eradicating all kinds of biodiversity along the way.  We not only disregarded the finity of plants and animals, but of a remarkably diverse race of peoples who lived in equilibrium with a world they recognized as precious. But after the West was won, the global balance of power shifted very quickly.  Industry, technology, and medicine led to unprecedented health and fecundity.  Global population exploded exponentially.  There was nowhere left to go.

Now it is humanity that strives toward limitlessness while the world seems to dwindle, inexorably, under our feet.  Like a dark cloud of volcanic ash circling the globe, we stifle and kill species on a massive scale in not much less sudden a fashion.  Even when we keep our hands clean, we contribute to global warming, pollution, and deforestation just by maintaining a modern lifestyle.  We are a mass extinction event, and we are still unfolding.

But as we know, mass extinctions are not the end of the world, and on the contrary, they offer new beginnings for life on Earth.  Whether humanity remains a part of that life remains to be seen.  Complex, intelligent life has evolved from rudimentary beginnings before and can do so again.  And as one of the largest biomasses on the planet, humanity could speciate in the wake of ecological collapse and fragmentation.  How we evolve could surpass our wildest dreams.

But I like being human, and I consider our world a beautiful place, one worth savoring and not throwing away.  Unlike any natural disaster we have the gift of agency and choice, of intelligence, foresight, and decision.  We are coming to terms with a small world that is getting smaller, and we will surely react and adapt to this knowledge as best we can.  But no outcome is inevitable.  All action and inaction will have an impact.  If we want to remain who we believe ourselves to be, we must choose to respect life, to value and foster diversity, to just take it easy once in a while, to control our primal appetites, and to change our very nature.  Only by choosing to change, rather than having to change, can we truly stay human.

The Melting Snowball Effect

A new look at twenty years worth of research shows that polar ice is in fact melting, and raising sea levels, faster than anticipated. Greg Laden writes “Greenland is losing ice about 500% faster now than it was in the early 1990s, while Antarctica is losing ice at about the same rate.” Altogether, ice melt since 1992 “has contributed to about 0.44 inches of sea level rise.” On Stoat, William M. Connolley says “Still – that adds up to 0.6 mm/yr. So it will have to grow if its to become interesting by 2100.” With ice-bound methane poised to mingle with carbon dioxide and accelerate global warming, interesting is a definite possibility. Scientists estimate that sea levels would rise by 200 feet if Antarctica thawed entirely. Not for several millennia, but an industrialist can dream.

Time to Act on Climate Change

Although the science is getting cold, the conversation about climate change was warmed over by President Obama on Thursday. On Thoughts from Kansas, Josh Rosenau says “This is a welcome change from the complete silence of the last few years, but falls well short of what the American people and the world deserve.” Rosenau argues that with scientific consensus long established, an attempt at policy is overdue. California, the economic canary in a coal mine, just enacted a cap-and-trade system designed to curb carbon emissions. Meanwhile, climate change denialists strive to maintain a false equivalency. Taking issue with an article in New Scientist, Greg Laden writes “The idea that the effects of global warming are something of the future is a standard denialist lie.” In fact, Greg argues, global warming has been progressing incrementally since we first began “the wholesale burning of coal.” And on Stoat, William M. Connolley explains the buildup of ice in parts of Antarctica as a product of wind, not frigidity.

Will Sandy Typify 21st Century Weather?

Hurricane Sandy Impacts Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge (DE) by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29th, drawn northwest by two cold fronts into the most populous area of the United States. Coby Beck has a telling wind map of the colossal storm on A Few Things Ill Considered, which was abetted by “a full moon causing the highest high tides of the year.” Sandy wreaked widespread devastation, and left over 100 Americans dead. Greg Laden writes that we have learned a lot from killer storms over the decades, and we were more prepared for Sandy than any other. But research shows that cyclones thrive in warm years; on Class M, James Hrynyshyn notes “storms that used to occur every 100 years can be expected between 5 and 33 times as often.” With the stakes raised, Sharon Astyk argues that it will be increasingly better to be safe than sorry, writing “as climate change alters the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, we are going to have to change our basic response, which is often to minimize and deny.”  Meanwhile, on EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse exposes Mitt Romney’s waffling support for federal emergency management. Rosenhouse writes, “it makes no sense to think the federal government has no role in relieving the devastation caused by a major storm that disrupts life in several states.”  And Liz Borkowski argues in favor of federal safety nets on The Pump Handle, writing “risk pooling is a central concept in health insurance, and it applies to disasters as well.”  Liz concludes, “we’re stronger as a nation when work together as a whole – and sometimes it takes a hurricane to remind us of that.”

Runaway Warming

The extent of Arctic sea ice undulates like a yearly sine wave—rising in October, peaking in winter, and melting all spring and summer. This September we are likely to observe the lowest of lows; Greg Laden writes “There is less sea ice in the Arctic Circle than recorded in recent history.” More ice has also melted in Greenland this season, with 4 weeks still to go. Greg says, “glacial melting is both more important than one might think and also more complicated.” For example, the albedo of Greenland’s ice sheet (the proportion of sunlight reflected back into the atmosphere) varies depending on the snowpack. “The white fresh frozen snow that falls over the winter is highly reflective,” but “as it melts and gets slushy and mixes with water is has lower albedo.” This is an example of a feedback mechanism, as warmth and melting allows more sunlight into the ice. Additional feedback could occur as methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is freed from polar ice sheets.

Full Speed Ahead?

On We Beasties, Kevin Bonham reports that scientists have genetically enabled E. coli to digest a sugar found in algae. Bonham writes, “Scientists have been picking this bug’s locks for decades, and it’s already been engineered to make not just ethanol, but many other useful products as well.” With the ability to metabolize sugar from a source as prolific, low-maintenance, and renewable as algae, E. coli could become a much bigger player in biofuel production. Meanwhile, Greg Laden considers the State of the Union address from an environmental perspective. Laden gives President Obama a pass for his pragmatic approach to an incendiary political issue, but admits that some of us might have preferred “a fire and brimstone demand to step up our national efforts to address Global Warming and the other issues related to the high rate of release of fossil Carbon into the atmosphere.” Laden says we must first elect a more unified Congress willing to enact science-based policy. In the meantime, the USDA’s revised plant hardiness map shows that “all the climate zones have moved north permanently.” And in 2012, that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg.