Saturday, December 17, 2016

We had an Awful Winter – and now the Good News

“It’s been a long cold lonely winter . . .” George Harrison, “Here Comes the Sun”, Abbey Road Album.

Anyone who lives in New England (me included) will tell you that last winter sucked. Heck, anyone north of Florida and East of the Mississippi River will tell you that.

It’s also been, so far, a very pleasant summer. No brutal heatwaves or sustained, soul- sucking humidity.

We are all familiar with the acronym “NIMBY”, for Not in My Backyard, but I read a new term the other day “Not out my window”. Doesn’t lend itself to a catch phrase. NomWin? Nah.

“Not out my window” means, “We had a record breaking winter, what’s all this talk about global warming”. It’s easy to confuse weather with climate. It lets presidential candidates dismiss the idea of climate change and makes it easy for senators to throw snowballs on the senate floor.

Weather is what we see when we look out the window. Climate is the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period. My cousin lives in Tucson, Arizona, which has a desert climate. We live in Massachusetts, which has a temperate climate, with no extremes in temperature, and four definite seasons.

But what we see out the window does not represent what is going on in the world at large and it doesn’t even represent what we would have seen had we looked out the window 50 years ago.

The last couple of years notwithstanding, average yearly temperature in Eastern Massachusetts have increased almost 2 degrees centigrade since the beginning of the 20th century, based on records from the Blue Hills Observatory. Average annual precipitation has increased from 43 inches per year to over 50 inches per year during the same period.

These two numbers represent long term trends. These two numbers represent changes to the prevailing weather conditions. These two numbers tell us the climate is changing where we live, right now. Not in the future, not down the road. NOW.

Two degrees temperature change does not seem like much when the temperature can change 30 degrees in one day. But we are not talking about daily temperature, we are talking about average annual temperatures. To give you some perspective, 25,000 years ago, the average annual temperature here in New England was 8 degrees lower than it was at the beginning of the 20th Century. At that time, Westborough was sitting under a continental glacier two miles thick. Please take some time to wrap your head around that. Go ahead, I will wait.

So, think about what the world would look like if the opposite occurred – average global temperatures 8 degrees higher than they were 150 years ago. Again, take some time to think about what that means. If you cannot think of what that means, I will tell you. Sea levels will be much higher because the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will have substantially melted. The climate here in New England will be more like it currently is in the tropics. You don’t want to consider what the conditions in the tropics would be like.

The interesting thing is that when you look at trends globally, the Eastern United States has been an outlier relative to the rest of the planet. The weather has been cooler than normal for the last couple of years. Where has it been warmer than normal? Everywhere else. In fact, so far, 2015 is the warmest year on record, from a global perspective. Temperatures in the Arctic are almost 5 degrees above normal. We had something like four times as much snow as Anchorage, Alaska last winter.

The American West, that is, everywhere west of the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, is seeing record drought and high temperatures. Forests are drying out, dying, and now burning from Alaska to Arizona. What we are seeing now is unprecedented in the instrumental record. Lake Mead is at something like 50 percent capacity and reservoirs are emptying out all over the Western US.

What is occurring now is in fact a predictable outcome and has in fact, been a predicted outcome of the increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere to our industrial activities and our energy-intensive way of life. These predictions are nothing new. Scientists studying and modeling Earth’s atmosphere started making these predictions at the end of the 19th century. Warnings about what the burning of fossil fuels could do to Earth’s climate can be found in government reports as far back as the 1950’s. 

These warnings were always put on the back burner because the effects would be felt in the future, down the road, in another few generations.

Well folks, I got news for you. We are at the end of the road, the future is now the present and this is the generation.

What’s the good news? New England is perhaps not a bad place to be as the climate warms, at least if you live away from the coast. We are not likely to see the kind of droughts afflicting the western US.  We will see more rainfall, which may be a mixed blessing as a good chunk of it will come as large storm events, but I’d rather be here than in Southern California right now.

In future columns I will discuss why the climate is changing, how we know it is caused by us, what the geologic record says, and perhaps what we can do about it.

Originally published 08/15/2016 Westborough News.

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