The Climate in Emergency

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


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Note

Circumstances beyond my control necessitate skipping posting this week. I’m hoping to post next week. We’ll see.

–C.

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The Fog of…Fog

The other day, I went on a walk with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels, whose name has appeared many times in this blog because he is an actual expert whose authority I can legitimately cite, and because he so consistently tells me things worth citing.

This walk was no exception.

We chatted about all sorts of things, scientific and otherwise, and generally had a good time. Other than the walk itself—we were trying to get to a particular place and explore it—we had no agenda. I’m not going to tell you all about that conversation, though much of it would interest you. I am going to tell you what he said about climate change.

Question: What Is About to Change?

In the course of our walk I asked “What is likely to change here [on Mount Dessert Island] over the next few decades, other than trees getting bigger and so forth?”

He’d already told me about the impending loss of paper birch, so he mentioned that again only in passing. He also discussed the problems of spruces, another previously discussed topic, elaborating this time that the island isn’t about to lose its spruces, but their life expectancy is being cut from 400 years to less than 100, for reasons he does not entirely understand, but climate change is likely involved as contributing stress, since they are cold-climate trees. Something is causing them to rot.

Then he told me something I did not know at all, but should have: that Mount Dessert Island is on track to lose its fogs. Not all its foggy days, perhaps, but many of them. The island will no longer be characterized by frequent fogs.

I should have known it because I knew both pieces of information that he cited as evidence. I knew that we get so much fog here because the Gulf of Maine is very cold, and I also knew that the Gulf of Maine is getting rapidly warmer. Therefore….

The Problem with the Loss of Fog

I like fog. It’s spooky and mysterious and lovely. I don’t want there to be less of it around here. But aesthetics are not the primary reason why the loss of fog would be a problem, and I didn’t need Tom to tell me what the real problem was—or, rather, I didn’t need him to tell me just then. I already knew about the ecological importance of fog around here, and I knew because he told me the better part of a decade ago.

The thing is, Mt. Dessert Island owes much of its identity to fog. A large number of natural history questions around here can be answered the same way; “because it’s so foggy.”

Most dramatically, frequent fogs allow the lichens on trees to grow much faster than they otherwise would—lichens can only grow when they’re wet, and those on bark, as opposed to soil, dry out quickly. Fog keeps them wet. And so here lichen growth is responsible for 40% of the forest’s overall nutrient balance. Less fog = less lichen = an impoverished forest.

Northern white cedar, one of the lovelier trees on the island, is also here because of fog. It requires calcium-rich soil, which our mostly granite bedrock would normally preclude, but fog motes each contain a speck of dust, and a cloud of fog contains a lot of motes and therefore a lot of dust. All that dust enriches the soil with calcium. Northern white cedar is, in fact, especially good at catching fog. I asked Tom if the cedars would be hurt by the loss of fog, and he said they might well be.

He said the fog problem will be apparent within the next fifty years, which is not a lot of time as such things go.

The Problem with Foggy Losses

As I said, I had overlooked the possibility that fog frequency could be altered as part of climate change. I’m not sure why. I’ve never before heard anyone else raise the issue, but I don’t know why I didn’t draw the conclusion myself.

What I’m wondering now is what else does climate change hold in store that nobody is talking about and that I don’t guess?

Even worse, is fog frequency already changing—without anyone talking about it?

I didn’t ask Tom. I could, but he doesn’t actually know everything, and it’s possible no one has yet crunched the relevant numbers. He is familiar with the island and its fogginess, but human beings are notoriously bad at assessing these types of trends, that’s why we invented statistics. It’s just not the sort of change we can reliably eyeball.

He said the change would be apparent within fifty years, but what does “apparent” mean? Is that when fog lessens enough to make a difference, or is that when the forests’ response to the loss becomes evident to casual human observation? If the latter, the fog might already be changing—both lichens and northern white cedars grow very slowly. Were their growth to slow even more, the difference would take a long time to add up.

How long? I don’t know. Maybe close to fifty years?

Question: What’s Changing Now?

One of the more disconcerting discoveries I made when I became an adult was that there were important topics where I was dangerously ignorant but had thought myself well-educated. I had heard simplified descriptions created for teens or as public talking points, and they had given me a clear picture of the situation with no apparent holes or gaps. So I had thought there were no gaps. I thought I knew all I needed to.

There were holes and gaps, of course, I had just been unintentionally misled by the skill with which the introductory talking points were constructed.

Simplified explanations are not bad. If well-constructed, they cover most of the important points of the subject in question while being accessible enough to reach beginners whose attention may be elsewhere. The important thing is to recognize them as simplifications. As I wrote last week, much of what most of us know about climate change is correct, but it’s simplified.

There are important things happening that we don’t always see.


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Cold

I’ve been cold all week. In fact, I’ve been cold and dirty, because I’ve been wearing all the warm clothes I have constantly and can’t bear to take them off long enough to wash them. I plan to buy a set of long underwear tomorrow and then do the laundry.

Of course–and I’m paraphrasing Stephen Colbert, here–me being cold doesn’t invalidate climate change any more than me being well-fed invalidates world hunger. It’s hard to even be sure this isn’t a normal, or even an abnormally warm, spring in coastal Maine, as I wrote last week.

But I talked to my friend (and go-to authority on most subjects), Tom Wessels, and he said this area IS running about a week late, and was running at least two weeks late back in April. Further, he says that late springs are the new normal around here, not in spite of climate change, but because of it.

A Cold Kind of Warming

Most of us are probably familiar by now with the idea that global warming is a trend and that individual cold snaps can still happen. Further, “climate change” is a more accurate name for the phenomenon, because warming isn’t the only thing happening. Some areas get wetter, others drier, and perhaps some areas get colder, although the global average temperature is still going up.

But all that is still an oversimplification.

Coastal Maine is not a local spot of paradoxical cooling, nor is this year anomalously chilly. Talking to locals, I learn that winter weather came late, and never got very cold, often warming up enough to rain. Then the rain and slush would freeze, adding another layer of ice to sheets already slick, thick, and vast. It’s just that the spring got a late start. In fact, since we seem to be catching up to normal, spring must be proceeding a little faster than it used to. I don’t know whether this later, faster spring is really a facet of climate change as Tom says–I trust his expertise, but I don’t know whether he really knows or is simply making an educated guess. But it’s certainly possible.

Because this is a big planet with a complex climate, and any simple explanation is likely to be more or less wrong. The world is getting warmer, but that doesn’t tell us what’s happening with storm tracks and front movements and different facets of the system that can vary with respect to each other, decoupling phenomena we thought were inextricably linked.

It’s not that nobody knows what’s going on, it’s that what’s going on is subtle, intricate, and pervasive.

The Moral of the Story?

While most of us have to simplify things to wrap our heads around them, such simplifications introduce error and make some things that are actually true, like coastal Maine’s new spring, seem bizarre and counter-intuitive. The moral of the story, if there is one, is not to put too much faith in the fables we tell ourselves to get through the day.

There are people who spend their entire lives studying climate change for a reason–it’s a difficult puzzle that takes a lot of work. When they tell us what they know, based on those hours and years spent tackling a puzzle most of us don’t have time for, we should believe them.


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Moving Landmarks

I have spent the past weekend traveling—a few days in southern New Hampshire, and now in coastal Maine. I have been experiencing weather and, by extension, climate not normally my own.

Of New Hampshire….

The Ashuelot River looked like an overfilled bathtub. The swimming beach at the nearby Swanzey Lake (which is more properly a pond) looked as though the tide had come in. Puddles escaped out of ditches and inched across trails. Everywhere throughout that part of New Hampshire was water, water, and more water. I used to live thereabouts, which is how I recognized the water level as unusual, but I have seen the rivers high before. The odd thing is that when the Ashuelot runs high, it usually turns a chocolate-milk color with eroded sediment. Most rivers, in my experience, do.

This time the river ran dark, its standard low-water color.

The paradoxical color told me that the high water wasn’t the result of rapid storm runnoff but of the slow, even seepage of the water-table, the low-water pattern of movement transposed to a much wetter version of the landscape.

Indeed, friends reported that it had started raining back in November and more or less never stopped, although the air was dry during our visit. One said she’d heard that although the rain has been deeply and dramatically unusual, the water-table is actually normal, now. So many years of drought had actually dried out the land so much that it took a six-month-long flood to make up the difference.

But if the water table is normal, is the high river and everything else likewise? Was the Keene area as I knew it always warped by drought?

Of Maine….

Here on the coast, now, the story is cold. The neighbor who brought his child to see our dogs told us he couldn’t work this spring—he digs clams, and otherwise harvests the sea—because until recently the harbors were frozen. This was the first week of the season temperatures rose above sixty degrees. Everybody’s talking about the cold, late spring.

My question is—is the spring really cold and late? Or is it a version of normal we haven’t seen in a while?

Of Normality….

I don’t know whether the wet and dry of New Hampshire or the cold and warm of Maine are especially symptomatic of climate change, but this uncertainty regarding normality certainly is.

Emotionally speaking, we recognize climate change is a sickening, frightening abnormality. The heat wave in January, the drought that eats whole reservoirs, the hurricane making landfall where no hurricane should be. But to recognize the abnormal, one must have a feel for the normal, and “normal” has been a moving target for decades, now.

It’s not unusual for winters warmer than the historical average to feel cold and long and hard because recent winters have all been warmer yet.

When your landmarks are moving, how can you be sure where you are?