The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Note

Everything’s fine: I’ll post tomorrow, weather permitting (at the moment I need to go to the library to get online, and the library has no indoor public space because COVID. Right now it is raining, so I’m typing this from under a picnic table, where I obviously can’t stay long).


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New Normal

There’s a new normal, now–quite literally.

“Normal,” in the sense of weather, as in “Today was ten degrees above normal” or “This month got double the normal rainfall,” or whatever else, is a fairly technical thing–long lists of numbers for temperature, rainfall, and other measures for each date and each area calculated using data collected over a 30-year period. Every ten years, these lists are updated. We’ve just had an update.

So now we’re using 1990-2020 figures, not the 1980-2010 figures we’d been using.

There are some good articles on the switch out there, starting with this explainer from the National Centers for Environmental Information, and I’m not going to try to repeat their entire content here, but I really couldn’t not mark the occasion with some kind of a note.

I find it interesting to note that one definition of “climate” is precisely these numbers. There are certain contexts when climatologists use shorter or longer time periods, but for most purposes “weather” is one happens day-to-day and “climate” is that larger pattern that appears when you look at the data in 30-year chunks. The 1990-2020 figures are different than the 1980-2010 figures; the climate changed.

You can look up the changes online easily–there are some nice visual representations in that article I linked to above. The general story across the US is that most places have gotten warmer, a few places have gotten a lot warmer, and a few places have gotten slightly cooler. Nowhere has cooled much. Some places are wetter, others drier.

Numerically speaking, the temperature changes don’t look like much to a non-climatologist–the most extreme warming is only about a degree and a half (Fahrenheit). But remember, these are normals, and a normal is a technical term. Remember the bell curve? You’ve probably seen it somewhere. It’s a graphic representation for how lots of things vary, from height to IQ to temperature. It’s shaped like a bell, with a hump in the middle and a falling-off on either side, because most measurements cluster around the middle, with fewer and fewer the farther away from normal you get. It’s not unusual to meet somebody four inches taller than normal–somebody eight inches taller than normal is rare. You might not have ever met somebody 16 inches taller. So the thing is, when “normal” moves warmer by a degree, that doesn’t mean that all temperatures are one degree warmer than they would have been–it means the whole bell of the bell curve shifts over. Heat waves that used to be very rare are now common.

I also find it interesting that although the real story here is that most of the US has gotten warmer, many of us will hear about the warmth less often. That’s because when we were using the old figures, daily temperatures were often above normal, and our weather reporters would say so. Now that we’re using the new, adjusted figures, above-normal temperatures should be much more rare for a few years. We’re going to be reminded of climate change less often by the weather reports.

Keep an eye out for that.


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Again, Can’t

The man who killed George Floyd was convicted on all three counts today. It feels odd not to post about such a momentous occasion, but I really can’t think of any way to work it into the subject matter covered by this blog. In fact, I’m having trouble seeing how I can write about anything.

I remember this feeling, this particular kind of brain-fog. Last time it was because my sister was dying. Now it’s because my friend is.

She could have weeks. She could have months. There’s not a lot doctors can do.

I went out today to split some firewood while the beagles romped and wrapped their leash around and around a white oak tree. Green shoots come up from the ground in drifts. Spicebush and highbush blueberry and various tree saplings–the trees themselves–are rapidly leafing out. The blueberry bushes are in flower.

Light, golden light, streamed through the still-tiny green leaves, the air clear and clean after the rain last night….I have not seen anything so beautiful in a long time.

The singular of “climate” is “today.”


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Black Lives Matter

Well, it happened again.

A veteran police officer shot an unarmed Black man at a traffic stop, apparently while intending to tase him. He died not long after. His name was Daunte Wright. He was just 20 years old.

I’ve seen the body-cam video, heard the officer’s voice as she said “Oh [bleep], I just shot him.” She sounds like someone who has done something terrible by accident. On the other hand, how do you accidentally use a gun? I can tell you I have made mistakes that seem implausible; human beings sometimes do not pay attention. But human beings who do not pay attention to their own guns should not be cops.

What strikes me is this woman is a 26-year veteran of the force. She’s not a rookie, and she can’t be a space cadet or she wouldn’t have lasted this long. She’s not some yahoo who bought a gun and a taser online last week and doesn’t know how to use either. How does someone like her kill a man by accident? Either she was playing innocent for the benefit of the body cam, or she did mix up her weapons–and did so because she just wasn’t trying very hard not to.

She doesn’t believe Black lives matter. Not enough to bother noticing that she held a gun.

Climate and Justice?

I have very mixed feelings about this post. On the one hand, the topic is worth a post. It’s worth a lot more than a post. On the other hand, if I wrote about all important topics, it wouldn’t be a climate blog anymore. Usually what I do is find a way to segue from racial justice to climate change, but I worry that in so doing I may imply that racial justice is less important. It’s not.

Now, it’s true that if we continue to maim the climate, racial justice will cease being an issue because we will all die. It’s also true that climate change hurts marginalized and disadvantaged people far more than it hurts the privileged. People who care about justice should also care about climate change. But the thing is, a 20-year-old man is dead, now. He won’t be there to see his kid grow up. He won’t be around to take a legal drink at a bar. Whatever it was he might have done with his one wild and precious life, either he already did it or it will never be done. There is no applying math to this, no measuring and comparing tragedies. We cannot say which is more important, injustice or the likelihood of the extinction of polar bears (and much else). Both are infinite.

The thing is, though, that I really don’t have much qualification to speak on race. There is little I can say that is not simply an echo of things said or written by people with far more experience on the subject than I. Most of them are Black. You should go listen to them, not to me.

But there is something I can say that I haven’t heard from anyone else. I’ve said it before, but it’s time to say it again; not only does caring about justice mean caring about climate, but caring about climate requires caring about justice.

Not that climate should be the reason you care about justice; justice is the reason to care about justice. But if you’ve fallen into the habit of mentally partitioning the two issues, of thinking that hours spent working for justice are hours not spent working for climate, then it’s time to stop thinking that.

The future of life on Earth depends now on Black Americans winning a seat at the table of power.

If individual action and private organization could have solved the problem, it would have done so by now. And if other countries that don’t have the issue with climate denial we do could have solved it alone, they would have by now. We need the power of American government, we need it now, and at the moment that means keeping Democrats in charge–and Democrats win when there is strong Black turn-out, not otherwise. Does it sound like I’m urging white environmentalists to turn up for racial justice as a means to an end? Well, if anyone reading these words needs a reason for justice other than justice, then I certainly offer climate! But such an approach is not only cynical but incomplete. Let me reiterate; justice and climate are not really separate. Racism has always been interrelated with environmental degradation, because both have to do with money and power; white environmentalists cannot expect, either strategically or morally, to make much headway against the one while continuing to tolerate, or even benefit from, the other.

Climate and Justice!

So much for theory. What do I want readers to do? What practical actions should we take? There are a lot of places where I really have no idea. I have neighbors who voted for Trump, knowing his deep ties to white supremacy–was I supposed to have confronted them? Tried to dialogue with and educate them? I don’t know. But there is a practical step I can tell you.

The Republican Party in many states has decided that the high Black turnout of the recent election can’t be allowed to happen again. To that end, they are attempting to pass various laws restricting voter access. Georgia got such a law passed already. And while much of the coverage of the Georgia law has focused on the ways it restricts voter access, the real kicker (According to the Rachel Maddow Show) is that it allows state legislatures to replace election officials at their discretion. Conceivably, if an election does not go the way a Republican-dominated legislature wants, it will be a simple matter to find and install election officials willing to falsify the results–falsifying election results will still be illegal, it will just be much easier to do and a lot harder to successfully prosecute.

The only way to protect democracy against such threats is to pass Federal election reform aimed at protecting the Black vote. And the only way to do that could be to eliminate, or at least reform, the filibuster.

Call your senators. Tell them you support SB1 and whatever must be done to the filibuster to make that happen.


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Fouci-Ouchie

Here I am, sitting in my backyard, listening to birds sing (some of them, the woodpeckers, are actually drumming, but it’s the same idea. Each woodpecker species has its own rhythm for display-drumming, just as each songbird species has its song), watching the sun go down, and making spike proteins. Once I’ve got enough, I’ll make specific antibodies. Once that’s done, I’ll be fully-equipped to (probably) not get COVID-19, and I’ll be able to hug my mother again.

You know what I’m not doing? Researching climate change. Making spike proteins is hard work. I spent half the afternoon asleep.

I’ll see you next week.


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The News These Days

Today I was all about experience, not analysis, and not necessarily even creativity. It’s been a good day, albeit not very productive as such things are usually defined. And so I don’t really have it in me to write a detailed piece of science explanation or political commentary. But I can still write about climate.

“Climate” is a certain kind of normal, an experience of normality over time.

Time, for example, as in the transition from winter to summer–the process of spring–a small corner of which I experience when I walk my dogs or go into town to run errands.

The following are a series of somewhat edited Facebook posts of mine. It’s the closest I come to keeping a journal these days. Weather is the day-to-day detail: climate is the context that makes the detail meaningful, that allows me to think of each day as a step in a process, an example of something larger, a part of a whole.

Or not.

March 3rd

Warm today and sunny. I took the dogs on a long walk. The leaves of the crocus (croci?) are up, and now so are those of the daffodils–even flower buds. But the crocuses have not bloomed yet, not ours, anyway. Our daffoldils do not bloom, despite making buds. Why not? I’d think if you go so far as to make the buds you might as well go ahead and open them up.

March 5th

(No post today this year, but my FB “memories” show me that in 2018 on this date I noticed that the silver maples were done flowering.

Silver maple is one of the species commonly planted on lawns. It has rough, flaky bark, the “fingers” of its hand-shaped leaves are very long and narrow, and its twigs are very thin and curve up at the end. It’s natural habitat is the banks and floodplains of streams, where the trees lean over and drop their keys (the wings that enclose their seeds) into the air and into spring floods, or onto mud freshly laid bare by floods. Together with American elms (which share both the same natural habitat and the popularity as specimen trees) they are the first trees in our area to bloom every year–you can see one in bloom in a scene in the movie “Groundhog’s Day,” proving that scene was actually filmed in the first half of February, assuming it was filmed in Pennsylvania. The flowers are tiny (most people probably don’t realize maples flower at all) but bright red. After some weeks, the female flowers begin to set seed. The males fall off, mission accomplished.

The flowers are too small to see clearly from the ground, and in the beginning the difference between a flower and a developing pair of keys is very subtle. The easiest way to tell that the trees have stopped flowering is to notice the fallen male flowers. Three years ago, I noticed them on March 5th, piling up in little drifts by the side of the road.)

March 8th

Skeins of geese flew over that afternoon, the sun shining off their pale bellies. They had dark wings–Canada geese. I’ve hardly seen any snow geese all winter. They’re probably north by now, anyway.

March 10th

The spring peepers are singing–have been for a while now. I also hear a trill, like a nail run over the teeth of a comb. Curiously, I do not hear the two in the same places. They must have different breeding habitat.Is the triller a toad? I need to look this up. I caught the vaguely skunk-like scent of fox urine, too, at one particular spot on my walk. Like the toads, the foxes are making themselves known because they are breeding. Foxes pee all year round, of course, but only in the late winter and early spring is the scent strong enough for humans to notice up to 25 feet away.

(Note: someone later told me the triller is likely a chorus frog)

(FB “memories” also show me that in 2018 on this date I commented that I was visiting my mother, and that she had “more snow than we do, but also more snow-drops and crocuses,” implying that it had snowed recently in my home in Maryland also.)

March 12th

(I did post, but not about the progression of spring. I did, however, describe a field as “winter-fallow,” suggesting my sense of the season at the time, and I noticed flying ants and the fact that sycamore seed-heads were breaking up–these are produced in the autumn, but do not release the seeds until spring. Sycamores, too, are flood-plain specialists. This tree was actually a London plane, or a London plane/sycamore back-cross and had been planted as a specimen tree a century or more ago. But seed production is similar either way)

March 16th

Cool but not cold, sunny today. Towards sunset I heard a bird fly overhead with a rapid whooshing. I hear it occasionally, but I do not yet know its species.The daffodils–including at least one of ours–are blooming, as are the crocuses, as is the purple dead-nettle. The latter is rather homely on an individual basis, but massed they are lovely.

March 19th

My wedding anniversary! Ten years ago, I carried daffodils and forsythias, gathered, with permission, from our neighbor’s yard. Neither are favorite flowers of mine, but we didn’t want to incur the carbon cost of flowers shipped in from elsewhere, and daffodils and forsythias were what was blooming in our neighborhood (along with the tiny green prickly thing my groom plucked for his boutonniere). I’ve been rather more fond of them ever since. But this year, the forsythias aren’t blooming yet. Odd.

March 23rd

Last night was the first time this year I left some of my houseplants out overnight. They’re out again tonight. They’ll probably have to come in again some nights before the growing season really gets going, which is why I have not taken out the really big one or the several that don’t seem to mind being indoors.

March 28th

The bees are up and out, now. I heard one fly low over my head today on her way somewhere–sounded like a bumble bee. One advantage of being sensitive to their stings is that you learn to tell the difference between different types of buzzing. I also saw a very tiny bee–the size of a large ant, but stocky and fuzzy and winged, walking around and sometimes flying a few inches near where I sat in the yard today. Her rear-most legs were yellow, possibly with pollen.Besides bees, the spring has brought out the forsythias (a bit late this year), the deciduous magnolias, and the ornamental plums. The silver maples are still in bloom, some of them, which seems late. Others are rapidly losing their male flowers to time. The redbud is NOT in bloom yet, though someone might think they are by mistaking the plums for them.We have at least one more freeze yet, though, they say.

March 29th

The Bradford pears are coming into bloom, as is the annual bluegrass and the weeping cherry (or, at least, I think it’s a cherry). The silver maples continue to bloom. Spring seems late this year, at least for some species.

March 30th

I did notice, on my late afternoon dog walk, that the neighbor’s tulip tree has broken bud–its leaves, though still small, are actually out, fully-formed, and its flower buds are swelling hugely. I didn’t think to check ours for comparison. The wild shrubs along our driveway–as I recall, they are coastal pepperbush, though I did not re-check their identity today–have also broken bud. Their leaves are tiny, but plainly visible. The dogs are shedding, though they do that to some extent year-round. The forsythias are in bloom at last–have been for a few days, maybe a week. Spring has been late this year, possibly because it’s been so wet. Dan Satterfield says we’ve gotten 150% of our normal rainfall, but I don’t know if that’s for this year, for March, or what.

Regardless, now is the time when spring, which, late or early, initially moves very slowly, starts to move very fast.


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The Point of Earth Hour

 

A watercolor painting in purple, blue, green, and tan of the Earth as seen from space. Mostly it is a view of the Eastern hemisphere, the same view as in a famous photo often used in environmental contexts--the first photo ever taken of the Earth as a whole. The reason one can tell that it is a watercolor is that the color is uneven in a characteristic way, especially the purple used to signify space. It's a precise image, obviously made by someone with talent, but it has an innocent, almost childlike mood.

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

 Looking through my Facebook “memories” this morning, I noticed old posts about “Earth Hour,” a time when people all over the world are supposed to turn off their lights as a symbolic gesture towards climate action. Apparently, a few years ago, it was today, March 23. I’ve looked it up, and this year it’s March 27.

But my old posts got me thinking–what, really, is the point of the gesture? Is it worth doing?

Earth Hour as a Way to Decrease Emissions

Does Earth Hour work to decrease carbon emissions? It seems like it ought to. After all, if millions of people all turn out their electric lights at once, that’s got to mean something, right? Well, not exactly.

First, optional electric lighting (“optional” meaning easy to turn off, so not traffic lights, etc.) is really a minor part of our total emissions. Second, if enough lights go off for an hour to decrease electricity demand, then demand will increase again at the end of the hour when everyone turns their lights back on–and rapid decreases and increases in demand creates more emissions than consistent generation does. Third, while doing without as much light as possible can be a useful exercise in energy awareness, making due with a very small electric light (like a plug-in night-light? Or LED Christmas strings?) is just as good in terms of emissions-reductions as candles, maybe better–because candles, too, have emissions, and they’re not efficient.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which publicizes Earth Hour, in fact does not claim that the event is effective at emissions reduction–the objective is to raise awareness. However, it seems likely than many participants don’t realize this subtlety. An internet search on “is earth hour effective” lists only articles on whether the gesture reduces emissions.

Earth Hour as a Way to Raise Awareness

So, does Earth Hour work to raise awareness, to drive meaningful change? The Earth Hour website asserts that it does and has–without providing any documented proof. And, as noted, I have not been able to find any other discussions of whether Earth Hour is effective in this way. But we still are not on track to achieve carbon neutrality in time to prevent catastrophic climate change. Until that happens, I have to doubt the effectiveness of any awareness efforts to date.

Earth Hour as a Way to Deepen Awareness

Personally I’ve found exercises of this kind–refraining from certain types of energy use for a set time–very helpful as a way to explore what kinds of changes I actually can make. It’s easy to take energy use for granted. We turn on electronics, drive around, buy things that can’t be recycled, without stopping to think about alternatives. A great way to think of alternatives is to simply go cold-turkey on something (electricity, plastic, non-local food, whatever you choose) for a challenging but manageable block of time and find out what happens. What problems come up, and can any of them be solved in better ways? In what ways is doing without whatever it is actually not that big a deal at all?

In other words, Earth Hour might not be effective at raising societal awareness of the seriousness of climate change, but it can be very useful for raising personal awareness of energy options. It’s an exercise.

There are two problems.

One is that by and large, I’m not finding much to indicate Earth Hour is being used as an energy-awareness exercise by most people. The other problem is that the obvious result of such an exercise–reduction of personal energy use–is not going to save us. The majority of our emissions come from sources individuals simply can’t control. We need collective action. We need systemic change driven by legislation.

Earth Hour 2.0

I haven’t yet decided whether to participate in Earth Hour this year. On the one hand, it seems pretty ineffective. On the other hand, sitting around at home with my husband by candle-light is always enjoyable, and it doesn’t seem to hurt anything.

Go ahead, participate it you want to.

But if Earth Hour isn’t very effective, is there something else that could do better? Some other way to raise and deepen awareness?

What about an Earth Month? Catholics choose things, individually, to give things up for Lent in order to deepen their religious practice. Doing without whatever it is focuses their attention on the themes of the Lenten season–and the fact that Lent is several weeks long lets it be a real learning experience, something that develops over time. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Catholics do reduce their energy use for Lent. As I wrote about several years ago, religious people of many traditions can and do use their spiritual practices to support environmental action. I’m not proposing that non-Catholics celebrate Lent as such, just that we take inspiration from the idea of a extended “fast” undertaken by an entire community together.

Perhaps at the beginning of Earth Month, participants could all post their commitment to social media–what they personally intended to give up. That everybody does it at once and posts about it publicly should raise awareness and encourage wider participation. That each person chooses their own thing to give up should allow more people to participate, and allow people who have already made substantial lifestyle changes to challenge themselves further. Throughout the month, there could be public gatherings or Zoom workshops, school events, programming on TV and radio, gestures of support and solidarity by businesses and institutions….

I vote we make it April.


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The More Things Change….

I have picked up the habit of reading Dan Satterfield’s FB posts. He’s the weatherman I interviewed a while back. I seem to have become a fan. There’s usually something there that is informative, amusing, or both. Today (that is, March 16), he posted about some anticipated terrible weather, including tornadoes, in the Southeast of the US. He said that tornadoes this early are unusual, but more likely at the moment because the Gulf is running about three degrees (Fahrenheit, I assume) above normal, and that such conditions are likely to become more common because of climate change.

This is odd because almost a year ago, I posted that there had just been a major tornado outbreak in the Southeast, and that the unusually early outbreak could be blamed, in part, on the Gulf being three degrees above normal.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tornadoes and Climate Change

The Washington Post does a good job of explaining the current weather situation, though they don’t get into the climate angle much.

Here is another post that acknowledges that the tornado season has had a slow start (an odd thought for those of us in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic, given that we don’t think about winter tornadoes, but they do happen, and there have been dramatically fewer this year) but that tornadic activity is about to pick up and could be intense through the spring. The author also describes in some detail the various factors that go into this long-range prediction. They are not simple or obvious–there’s the warm water in the Gulf, but also the cool water in the Pacific, the behavior of the jet stream, and other issues (the article is a bit rough to read–as it is a European site, I suspect the author is not comfortable with English but is a reliable source of information).

That cold, Pacific water is La Niña, a recurring pattern more or less the opposite of El Niño, and which sends warm air the the Great Plains of the United States, encouraging tornadoes. It’s not known whether there is a connection between El Niño/La Niña and climate change, or what the connection may be if there is one. USA Today explains the connection between La Nina and tornadoes clearly, but straight-out says there is no connection between tornado frequency or severity and climate change–but while researching for an article I posted four years ago, I found one.

I had read an article on Weather Underground that explained that tornadoes are very difficult to connect to climate change, not because there is evidence of any lack of connection, but because there just isn’t much evidence at all. Simply put, until relatively recently we didn’t have any clear idea of how many tornadoes were happening or how powerful the ones we didn’t see might have been. It’s hard to do a before-and-after comparison if you don’t have a “before” picture. I can’t link to that article now because the original link I have has broken. Perhaps the article has been taken down, possibly in connection with layoffs at Weather Underground last year. Nevertheless, a pattern had been found, according to an article on The Weather Network that is also no longer there to link to. It said that although there are fewer days that have tornadoes now, if a day does include tornadoes, there are likely to be more of them–because climate change is decreasing wind shear but increasing heat. Without wind shear there can be no tornadoes, but when there is enough wind shear for tornadoes, there is more energy to fuel them.

I can readily believe that the tornado/climate change connection is still tenuous, based on small datasets and perhaps even uncertain methods–though I’m not in a position to judge (I’m not a meteorologist or a climatologist, and I haven’t seen the relevant papers anyway, only articles, now missing, that discussed the research). But I also have to suspect that USA Today was being disingenuous in its blanket disavowal of any connection at all.

Lack of evidence for is not evidence against.

Updated Pictures and Poorly-Worded Questions

I wrote that article I’ve linked to, the one that cites its sources using links that have since broken, four years ago. Poking around online today, I find articles saying roughly the same thing as I found before but with more nuance. Here’s a good one. The others are similar.

Apparently, we still don’t have a clear picture, not just because of a lack of historical data, but because tornadoes are too small to show up in the simulations they use–simulations that compare the weather of the real world to an imaginary world without climate change. The severity of outbreaks does seem to be increasing even as the number of outbreaks remains stable or decreases, and the geographic area over which tornadoes are common is shifting east slightly–but while climate change may well be responsible, the matter still seems a little unclear. I have not found any articles commenting on whether the timing of tornadoes is shifting, too. That is, traditionally most tornadoes happened in April and May, with March tornadoes being less frequent. Are the March storms getting more frequent? Is tornado season coming earlier? I’m not sure anybody knows–but Mr. Satterfield seems to think it could be.

The thing is that “is climate change making tornadoes worse” is one of those questions that means different things depending on who is asking.

To a climatologist, the question is likely to mean “is climate change making tornadoes more powerful or more numerous?” The answer to that one seems to be “we don’t know–maybe not.” Some of the articles I’ve read describe social media posts about tornadoes and climate change as…they don’t quite use this word, and it’s a historically loaded word, but hysterical. Premature and over-excited, anyway.

But if I lived in Alabama, I would not care tonight whether tornadoes are getting more powerful as a matter of national average. I’d probably be huddled in my bathroom hoping my roof stays on, first of all. But also I might be thinking “this feels weird. We’ve gotten tornadoes in Alabama before, but not this often, and not usually in March. Am I imagining it? Has something really changed? Is this climate change?”

I’d want to know whether life has gotten more dangerous for me. I’d want to know why.

And the thing is, it has. Tornado alley is drifting east, and it might also be getting earlier in the year. That means if you live in Alabama, there are more tornadoes now, even if the national average hasn’t changed. The Southeast, “Dixie Alley,” as they’re calling it, has more people and more infrastructure than Tornado Ally does, meaning tornadoes are more likely to kill people and cause disasters than they used to be. People there also have less experience with tornado risk, which could mean they are less prepared. Outbreaks are bigger, meaning they make bigger news stories, meaning we hear about tornadoes more often, for greater emotional punch. And if the timing of the season is really changing, that means more tornadoes happen when the days are shorter, which means more of them happen at night. And we know night-time tornadoes kill many more people because folks can’t see the storm developing and are more likely to be asleep anyway.

So, yes, people of Alabama and surrounding states, you’re not imagining it; you are getting more tornadoes, and from your perspective, they are worse. And climate change is probably why.

And, while we’re on the subject, last year when I pointed out that the Gulf was unusually warm? I also reported that if it stayed that way, the Gulf hurricane season would also likely be bad. Seems like, in some respects, the more things change, the more disasters repeat themselves.

 


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A Family Expecting

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew, several years ago. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, and rewritten it at least once under a new title. I’m re-posting again now for two reasons; one, today has been two busy to write, two, the piece is still a good way to remind people that what we’re doing really matters.  Although this story is a fantasy, it is based on the published results of climate models. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth birthday, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

More years pass, and my nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He has friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year, he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. The American white birches are all dead, killed by a changing climate. It’s sad.

Eventually, my nephew becomes a very old man, a spry but somewhat stooped 89-year-old, mostly bald, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out of his ears, his breathing deep and slow and marred by occasional coughs and rumbles. He has lived long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts have reworked the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity has pulled away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters have befallen him–the worst-case scenarios have not played out, but mostly he’s just been lucky. Plenty of disasters have happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can. But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

——————–

I wrote the above several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and has carried treats to the chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think my nephew knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying, and now more recent. developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.