Saturday, December 17, 2016

What a Difference a Year Makes

I heat my home with fuel oil and spread my payments to my heating oil provider throughout the year on a budget plan. It can sometimes be annoying to shovel a couple of hundred bucks at my oil company starting in July, watching the balance build up and up, but it can also be gratifying to see the balance decline after a delivery, knowing that I don't have to shell out $500 or $600 all at once.

This winter, which ends officially in about two weeks, the balance just kept going up. I figured I would stop sending money to the oil company at the beginning of February because there was no way I was going to be needing $1,500 worth of heating oil between now and July, but the company beat me to it, sending me a notice which in essence said "PLEASE DON'T SENT US ANY MORE MONEY."

Last December, I predicted, with tongue firmly in cheek, that we would have a mild winter because I had just spent a lot of money on a brand spanking new snow blower. We did (so far) have a mild winter, but I knew it was not because of my now little-used snow blower (though I have to admit, it made short work of the snow we did have).

Based on my review of the literature, I knew it would be a mild winter because of the ocean circulation changes known as El Nino, which I have discussed before.

Much as I am gratified to not be spending money on heating oil and to be disappointed that I didn't get to play with my new toy as much as I wanted to, there is more than an exceptionally strong El Nino going on here, which doesn't bode well at all.

Last month was the warmest February on record in the Arctic. Average temperature in the central Arctic were 11 to 14 degrees F above the historical mean, which puts them at levels not normally seen until June. The February extent of sea ice in the Arctic decreased by about 448,000 square miles from historical averages, which is roughly equivalent to the combined area of Texas AND California.

It was so warm in Anchorage that the organizers of the Iditarod had to ship in snow by rail for the starting leg of the race. Alaska itself has seen its average winter temperatures rise by 6 degrees F in the last 60 years (twice as much as the lower 48 states).

Most people studying these phenomena do not think these observations have anything to do with El Nino. One of the main predictions by climate scientists is that the effects of accelerated global warming would be felt first in the Arctic.

The record-setting February, which followed a record-setting January was so significant that even diehard climate "skeptics" are starting to admit that the Earth, is in fact, getting warmer.

The warming of the Arctic is of much more consequence than just starving polar bears and native villages (30 so far) which have been or are about to be relocated away from their ancestral coastal locations due to melting shorelines. About 24 percent of the northern hemisphere is underlain by a vast layer of permafrost or frozen ground, which contains a huge volume of un-decayed organic matter, like peat.

As the permafrost thaws, this material starts to decay, which releases methane, which is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Scientists estimate that the Arctic's permafrost contains about 1.4 trillion tons of carbon which can be converted to methane and CO2. By contrast, the Earth's atmosphere contains 0.85 trillion tons of carbon in the form of CO2 and lesser amounts of other gases.

So as the permafrost thaws, more greenhouse gases will be released, which will accelerate warming and cause more thawing in a "positive" feedback loop. This trend is positive only in the sense that the effects are ever increasing.

The question is how fast this process is happening and scientists do not know the answer. Even though the speed of this process has not been quantified, the fact is that the permafrost is observably thawing out.

Ten years ago, scientists were predicting that locations such as Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, would be stable until the 2070s. Much to their alarm, these areas are already melting. That ought to tell you something.

So here we are closing out a winter which could not have been more different than the previous one.

Will we see a winter like 2014/15 again in the future? Will we see a year with temperatures lower than 2015? I am sure we will, but as time goes on, the probability of these conditions happening on a year over year basis is going to decrease.

Good news for my heating oil bill. Bad news for the Iditarod . . . and the permafrost.

Originally published in the Westborough News on 03/11/2016

No comments:

Post a Comment