The Climate in Emergency

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

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For Our Lives

Many years ago, I was on a crew doing fuels reduction cutting in the urban-wilderness interface. In plain English, that means there were about ten of us who would go to neighborhoods that butted up against forests, and we’d thin out the trees using chainsaws and also cut away dead branches near the ground. This was in Arizona, in an area that was once grassy, with few, well-spaced trees, but over-grazing and then fire suppression allowed trees to grow more densely than they had previously. As a result, that part of Arizona, which used to have frequent, low-intensity grass fires, now has rare but very dangerous and damaging forest fires. The idea is that by thinning out the trees and then doing controlled burns, the more dangerous fires can be prevented. It seems to work, and of course they prioritize tracts of land near houses and such.

Anyway, one of the men on my crew–I forget his name, now–was beautiful. I don’t mean I was especially attracted to him (though I can see how others might be), I mean that he looked good in a way more common among women, although he was not at all feminine in affect. He had a very thin build and long, thick, black hair. And one day he returned to headquarters with a story.

He had been busy cutting, when a woman came out of her nearby house, saw him, and shouted “GIRL POWER!!!”

Obviously, from a distance, and while wearing several layers of protective equipment, he had looked to her like a woman running a chainsaw. She was delighted and impressed. Of course, there WERE several women running chainsaws in the vicinity, but none were in her field of vision, only him.

Unable to have a real conversation under the circumstances, the man simply pumped his fist. Yes, girl power, women on chainsaws! Yee-haw!

“I didn’t want to disagree,” he later explained.

Watching teenagers taking to the streets for gun control, I have a very similar reaction. As with that man busy running a noisy and dangerous chainsaw, I find my response largely limited by circumstance to a binary choice between approval and disapproval. And I don’t want to disagree–schools should be safe places, and young people should be supported in political involvement. And yet these people are missing something.

As I’ve covered elsewhere in this blog, climate change is a greater threat to these kids’ future than school shootings are, and the fossil fuel industry is a greater threat to American democracy than the gun lobby is, so why aren’t we taking to the streets to do something about it? Why is the youth movement rising in one place but not the other?

Both could happen at once, of course, it’s just that they aren’t, and the more I see the power of the gun safety movement, the more mystified I am that environmentalists seem to be twiddling their thumbs. Massive protest can still accomplish something, so what is the hold-up? I am, in fact, beginning to wonder if social media is being used deliberately to interfere with action on climate change.

Of course, it may just be that climate change, with its complex patterns of varying risk, just doesn’t seem as real, as important, as a spray of bullets.

Fortunately, the party of the NRA happens to also be the party of climate deniers, so if the March for Our Lives sweeps gun advocates out of office, they could switch the balance of power on climate, too. Unfortunately, that’s not a forgone conclusion.

As I’ve explained here before, a majority of Americans understand climate change is real and want something done about it, but few consider silence on the issue a deal-breaker for  candidate. But for the minority of climate skeptics and deniers, climate action is a deal-breaker.  The political calculus is clear; ignore climate change, take a stand on a couple of other liberal issues, and win. That is why we’ve been treading water on the issue for a generation while the world begins to burn.

Getting committed climate deniers out of office is not necessarily the same thing as getting climate activists in. We need candidates who are committed to climate action for its own sake, not for political reasons. How do we find them, especially given that they might not campaign on the issue?

Perhaps getting behind the rising young people is one half of a winning strategy for climate–and the other half is getting behind candidates of color. White Americans lag behind other groups in taking climate seriously, so, statistically speaking, black and brown lawmakers are more likely to be climate sane than white lawmakers who campaign on similar platforms. And there are all sorts of reasons to support candidates of color anyway.

If environmentalists will not take to the streets, perhaps we can make some progress by getting behind those who will.



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The world’s last male northern white rhinoceros is dead.

His name was Sudan. He liked people, and was liked by them, and spent most of his 45 years in captivity. He was very old, very ill, and, recently, in a lot of pain. He was euthanized yesterday by a team of veterinarians who loved him.

He leaves behind just two other members of his subspecies, both female relatives of his, both unable to reproduce. His death doesn’t actually change the picture for his kind; recovery is not quite impossible–some of his sperm remains in storage, and one of the females, though unable to gestate, can produce eggs, which could be harvested–but it is an extreme long shot, and it was equally a long shot yesterday before he died. The death of the last member of a species or subspecies is a technicality.

The northern white rhino is part of the same species as the southern white rhino, which is not in quite such dire straights, but the distinction between the two matters. The northern white rhino may have been capable of ecological relationships that its southern counterpart can’t replace. Anyway, things are bad for rhinos in general, these days. We can’t take any subspecies’ survival for granted.

Periodically, someone questions whether we really need all these species and subspecies, whether the heroics enacted for the likes of Sudan are really worth the effort. Such questions ignore the fact that we almost certainly don’t know what we’re losing when a species dies. We don’t know how far the web of its relationships in the world went.

Climate change did not kill Sudan, not directly. But species loss is another symptom of the collapse that is causing climate change. As long as our species insists on using more resources than our planet actually has–something that is only possible with the use of fossil fuel–progressive biosphere collapse is inevitable. Climate change did not kill Sudan, but it’s possible that climate sanity could have saved him. What might climate sanity now still save?

Talk about climate change. Talk to your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your Congresspeople. Don’t let the issue be ignored.

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Here I am, visiting my mother, who still lives in the house we moved to when I was two, spending time with my sister’s kids, and I am about to go watch A Wrinkle in Time, a movie made from the first real chapter book I ever read entirely by myself. I was nine years old. I have not stopped reading since.

It’s easy to think about children and climate change and be terrified. I don’t know what my sister’s kids are going to have to deal with, but it’s likely to include a lot of things that aren’t good. But at the moment I’d rather approach the subject from the angle of memory. It’s my own childhood I’m thinking of today.

I was born in 1977, meaning that my first winter included the famous Blizzard of ’78. Later, when I noticed winters getting less snowy, my parents pointed out that I’d been biased by an unusually snowy first experience. They may have been right. Climate change does not necessarily mean less snow–often, it means more of the white stuff, actually, as long as winter temps stay below the freezing point. Climate change brings floods, and some floods happen to be white and fluffy, is all. But yes, I was thinking about the issue. I knew.

I remember the moment I learned about climate change. I don’t know why I remember–I learned about a lot of things as a child, without remembering the actual lesson, but that one stuck out. My Dad and I were standing outside, on the edge of our parking lot, near where the grass began and the yard went back and back. Being a scholarly sort, my Dad was always reading things and passing on the ideas that interested him. A group of scientists had made a chicken embryo grow teeth by turning on the latent dinosaur DNA still in the bird genome. Bird feathers contain no blue pigment; feathers that appear blue have microscopic structures that bend light. Ginkgos are the only trees that make sperm that swim. And, on that one day, he said the planet is getting warmer because of pollution, and in about ten years, the difference is going to start getting noticeable. If it gets warm enough, the ice at the poles will melt and the sea level will rise. If ALL of it melted,our house would be under water and we’d have to come visit it in a boat, with SCUBA gear. He seemed to like that idea, visiting the house in a boat. I guess the vividness of the example appealed to him as a writer.

I understood the boat thing would not likely happen–melting would take time, more time than individual human beings have. But I also understood that the world that I knew would change and that I would watch some of the changes. “When I grow up,” I remember thinking, “I’m going to move to the North Pole, so I can still have winter.”

I was six, I think. Somewhere in there. That would make it around 1984.

Growing up, I noticed that winter seemed to be getting warmer, a kind of “bottoming out,” where fall and spring would seem normal, but the cold stretch in the middle wasn’t reliable anymore. I have no idea if that was even a real local pattern, not my imagination, and it probably wasn’t related to climate change because signal can’t be separated from noise with as few data as my experience gave me. But I thought I was seeing it, and it scared me. I interpreted the heat waves of 1998 as climate change, too, but there I’m on somewhat firmer ground, as that was a particularly fierce El Niño, and no one yet knows the connection between El Niños and climate change. There could be a connection. But while I wasn’t really able to see the signs myself, the global climate was changing.

The last May whose temperature fell below the 20th-century average occurred before I was born, but I lived through the last time we had any month below average–it was a February, and I was seven. I don’t expect to ever have another. The sea level rose globally, a subtle thing, but enough to make a difference in coastal floods–it adds up to just over two and a half inches since my birth. Precipitation in the Northeast, my region, has increased by 8% since 1991, relative to the first half of the 20th century, though it’s hard to say how much of that is climate change-related. I wonder how much that has to do with the local increase in mold and mildew. When I was a kid, summers were humid, yes, but in the last ten years or so, my mother has had to use a dehumidifier, not simply for personal comfort, but to prevent the walls from molding. That was never necessary before.

Personal observation is suspect, relative to trends–that why we invented statistics, because human beings naturally look for trends, but most of the ones we find unaided are imaginary. I know climate change is happening, not because I’ve seen it, but because researchers whose methods I trust, and to some extent understand, have measured it. But I’ve lived it. I’m forty years old. Climatologists look for changes over large blocks of time, and the minimum-sized block is 30 years. That I live in a different climate than I did that day my Dad and I spoke can now be confirmed by science.

I’m also old enough that my generation is fast becoming another generation that didn’t do anything about climate change. The future is becoming the past. It’s time to treat this as the emergency it is and act with the urgency of a person whose hair is on fire.

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Last week, I spent three days huddled inside because of high winds rattling the house and ripping dead branches off of swaying trees–and I live in Maryland, where the storm (“Winter Storm Riley,” officially) was relatively minor. What we saw was nothing, compared to what the people in coastal Massachusetts experienced.

Now we’re preparing for another one (“Quinn”). And some meteorologists expect another storm after that.

What Are Nor’easters?

This week’s storms are nor’easters. They’re not unusual, although the recent one was an extreme example. Like hurricanes, they are very large low pressure systems that bring wind and rain (or snow) and last for several days. Unlike hurricanes, they draw their power, not from warm water (there wasn’t any under Riley) but from the interaction between warm and cold air masses. They generally form in winter. In the case of Riley, a storm system moved east across the US, then drove the rapid development of a very intense low pressure area just off the coast, which then moved north and gradually east. On satellite images, the thing looks like a hurricane, a massive pinwheel of swirling cloud off the coast. While too far out in the Atlantic now to influence my weather directly, Riley still exists. It’s busy causing damaging surf on Puerto Rico from thousands of miles away.

Nor’easters seldom approach hurricane force winds. Typically, these storms are gusty, not windy, a serious inconvenience, but not a danger, unless you have bad luck (such as an unusually weak tree limb right above your car). Rily was the most intense I’ve seen, and around here it was only in the high tropical storm-force range.

The lesser winds do not make these storms mild.

For one thing, nor’easters have much larger peak wind fields than hurricanes do. While a hurricane might have sustained winds of 90 miles an hour near its center, most of the area the storm passes over will get much weaker winds, say 50 or 60 miles per hour. A strong nor’easter will blast the same 50 or 60 miles per hour over the same large area, it just lacks the 90 mph core.

Second, wind is not the most destructive aspect of a hurricane, it’s just the easiest way to compare storms to each other. The size of the wind field, the speed the storm travels (and hence how long it spends in any one place), the size of its storm surge, and how much it rains are all much more important in terms of its destructive power–and above all, there is the question of what it hits. A low-lying, heavily populated area where the people lack both money and political power is where the disaster happens. And nor’easters have large wind-fields, heavy precipitation, sometimes heavy coastal flooding, and can persist for days.

And, as with hurricanes, when we get a bad one (or several) people start asking about climate change.

Nor’easters and Climate Change

Meteorologists can be quick to point out that individual storms can’t be linked to climate change, which both is and is not true. One recently referred to efforts to draw the link as “witch-craft.” That’s at best disingenuous.

We can absolutely prove that climate change is making nor’easters worse, for the same reason that climate change is making hurricanes worse. First, the single most dangerous aspect of either storm is coastal flooding, which is unquestionably worse now that the sea level is several inches higher than it was when most existing infrastructure was built and when the data used to define flood zones for insurance purposes were gathered. The apparent sea-level rise varies from place to place, because geological forces are also in play making the ground rise in some places and fall in others, but climate change can claim about eight inches of it world wide, due to a combination of thermal expansion (things, including oceans, expand when they heat up) and glacier melt. That means every coastal flood event, including all hurricanes and all nor’easters, are  eight inches worse than they would otherwise have been.

Eight inches doesn’t sound like much, until you imagine them inside your living room.

Also, a warmer planet means more humid air, which means wetter storms. In the winter, as long as the air temperature is below freezing (which isn’t really very cold), that means more snow–more closed roads, more fallen trees and snapped power lines, more collapsed roofs, more car accidents, more missed days of school. All of this should sound very familiar to some readers right about now. All that white stuff? Yup, it’s a symptom of climate change, not a negation of it. In warmer weather, wet storms means rain which means flooding. That’s ruined houses, damaged roads, washed-out bridges, soaked earth–leading to toppled trees and snapped power lines–and drownings.

We’ve been through this already with hurricanes; climate change does not have to cause individual storms, or even make a certain type of storm more likely or more intense, in order to directly cause more storm damage.

But can climate change cause nor’easters? Yeah, it kind of looks like they can.

Connecting the Dots

To tell this story, we have to cover a bit of atmospheric anatomy.

Remember the polar vortex? It was all over the news a few years ago, but I haven’t heard of it of late. It still exists, though. Actually, there’s two of them. Or sometimes three.

The polar vortex is not a type of storm, but rather either of two long-term atmospheric features–this sounds a little different than the last time I explained it, because the two features tend to get mixed up in public discussion, and I only recently learned that they are distinct.

Originally, “polar vortex” meant a circular pattern of winds that forms in the stratosphere around the pole in winter. It’s also called the polar night jet, because the sun does not rise in the winter at its latitude. The winds blow from west to east and divide cold polar air from warmer air at lower latitudes–the stratosphere is a layer that begins several miles up, above where weather happens. But in recent years, the term has also been applied to the jet stream, a circular pattern of winds in the troposphere–a much lower layer–also at a boundary between warm and cold air, but much farther south. The jet stream meanders, across the latitudes covered by the United States and southern Canada. The jet stream exists winter or summer, and its shape and location help determine whether any given area gets warm, tropical air or cold, arctic air this particular week.

Ok, so, definitions taken care of, what does either polar vortex have to do with climate change or Winter Storm Riley?

A lot of the strange weather we’ve had in recent years has been caused by extreme waviness in the jet stream. Because the jet marks the boundary between warm air and cold air, an extreme meander means that warm air flows much farther north than normal over here, while cold air flows much farther south than normal over there. At the same time, weather systems tend to persist longer and move slower than normal. Rainy weather becomes catastrophic floods. Dry, hot weather becomes killer heat waves and droughts. The extra waviness is likely caused by global warming, especially the loss of Arctic sea ice. As the planet warms, the polar regions warm faster than the rest of the planet, decreasing the contrast between the warm and cold regions and weakening the jet stream that lies at their boundary. Weak jets are slow and wavy.

So climate change doesn’t cause snowstorms in Florida by some magical method of “global weirding,” but instead through a fairly straight-forward form of atmospheric messiness, a weakened and wobbly boundary between warm and cold caused directly by the warming Arctic.

The next bit is less certain, as in not all scientists agree, but a weak and waving jet stream could be one of the mechanisms able to put pressure on the polar vortex and cause it to temporarily break down and allow warm air in over the pole. Such an event is, sensibly enough, called a Sudden Stratospheric Warming, or SSW. Although the stratosphere itself doesn’t have weather in the normal sense of the word, it can influence the weather of the troposphere, resulting in odd weather several weeks later–such as cold snaps, warm periods, or violent storms. SSWs appear to be natural (we have only been measuring stratospheric temperatures for a few decades, now, so it is hard to be sure), and their frequency has not increased, but some computer models suggest an increase could happen, and the extra-wavy jet stream could make it happen–or could already be making it happen. It takes a while to gather enough data to document a change in events that don’t happen every year.

Riley (and presumably its sibling-storms, to some extent) was triggered by a particularly severe SSW, one which ripped the polar vortex in two and triggered a bizarre winter heat wave in which parts of the Arctic rose above freezing for days on end. There’s no sun up there, remember, yet the ice started melting instead of growing–a bad sign. That triggering is not in doubt. And the SSW could have been triggered by a weak and wavy jet stream, which is itself caused by melting sea ice (notice the ominous cycle implied there?). Melting sea ice is, rather unambiguously, a symptom of global warming.

That “maybe” in the middle of the causal chain remains, but this is very close to a linkage between climate change and a single storm. Anyone who claims differently is going to have to marshal a much better argument than claiming “witchcraft” to convince me otherwise.