The Climate in Emergency

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


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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?

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A Fiction Interlude

Here is another excerpt from a novel I’m working on. It’s set in the future, so you may notice some oddities, such as the narrator not being sure the readers know what dimes are, but it can basically stand on its own.-C.

As I’ve said, the main building sat—or, I suppose, still sits—on a bit of a hill, so that while the main entrance is at ground level, the back door of the same floor opened onto a second-story balcony. This same geography required that what was basement on one side of the building was a ground floor, complete with windows, on the other. The underground portion of the basement was divided into a utility room, a laundry room, and the school’s large root cellar. You need a large root cellar to feed two hundred-some people through a Vermont winter. The front portion, with the windows, was a long, narrow space that serves both as student lounge and library.

There is no librarian, or, rather, the school’s librarian (her name was Adrianne) had no desk or station within the library. To check out a book, you wrote your name and the book’s name down on a clipboard by the door, and if the book wasn’t back by the time she re-shelved on Sunday, she’d charge you. Everything else about the library was on the honor system. You could eat lunch in there while reading, and some people did.

Besides books and the student computers and printers, that long, low, cool room contained chairs and sofas and a pool table with an optional table tennis top, and plenty of ash trays and fire safety notices, because the staff had long ago seen the futility of trying to prevent students from smoking pot in there. Two large jugs of water stood always full, so that if you brought your own mug you needn’t fear going thirsty while you did your homework, but all other refreshments were strictly bring-your-own. Sometime in my first year I had picked up the habit of reading or writing or daydreaming in the chair second-closest to the door, and by the time the beginning of my second fall trimester rolled around, I thought of that chair and the space immediately around it as my office.

Which is all a way of leading up to the fact that in mid-September, who should step into my “office,” but Saul.

I hadn’t seen him in the better part of a year. I jumped up from my chair, and he saw me and gave me a smile of surprised pleasure. Of course, he hadn’t known that corner of the library had become my primary haunt. He gathered me into one of his wonderful hugs and I had the irrational sense of being glad to be home—as though I, and not Saul, had returned from somewhere.

“I didn’t know you were back,” I told him, when we disengaged. We each sat down, he flopping into the chair by the door with the relief of the exhausted. The day was dangerously hot out, the dim library a cool refuge, and I took the liberty of lifting his mug from his hand and filling it with water.

“Thank you,” he said, and took a long drink. “I only just got here.”

“Didn’t you get back earlier last year?”

“Yeah. Last year some things fell through so I just came back early.” He took another long drink and leaned back against the wall behind his chair. “Jeez, it did not used to get so hot in New England.”

He was still in his traveling clothes, a light-weight kilt and a short-sleeved, collared cotton shirt that would have been stylish had it not been sweat-stained. He had the top of the shirt unbuttoned, and I could see a little gold medallion, smaller than a dime, if you’ve ever seen a dime, hanging from a thin, gold chain amid the black curls of his chest hair. I found out later that the medallion bore the image of a butterfly, and that he never took it off, though he never wore it outside his shirt where people could see it, either. He took off his hat and sighed the sigh of the overheated.

“They say it’s an advantage in the winter, though,” I offered.

“If you like ice storms, sure,” he replied, and lifted his head to look at me. “Cold. We could deal with the cold. We knew how. What we have now are rapid freeze/thaw cycles all winter long. That’s why we’ve lost the paper birches and, ironically, why we’re losing some of the southern orchard species, too. How many years is it we haven’t had a decent peach? God. God damn those idiots all to hell. This is a different world, now, and a poorer one. They could have prevented this, but they didn’t.”

“I know you’re right,” I told him, “but the climate doesn’t seem that different to me. I mean, I’m young, but I’m not that young. I remember Before.”

“Oh, it’s different, trust me. Even in the…how old are you?”

“Nineteen.”

“In the past nineteen years, there have been a lot of changes. But people don’t notice, or they don’t notice that they notice. There’s a hot day, but people don’t put it in context because they don’t expect there to be a context. Actually, I think that’s part of the reason to tell stories.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. A narrative frame allows people to put what they experience in context, tells them what is significant and how, what to pay attention to, what to remember. We are living the story of global warming. And you and I know how to follow the plot.”

“So, that’s storytelling as reminder, again,” I ventured, thinking back to our conversation about what seanachis do. “The story affirms what is significant, tells people that certain experiences are real and worth caring about?” I was thinking of all the Yom Kippurs I hadn’t even noticed over the years, because Alicia didn’t think they were worth noticing. Hearing a maggid or two preach in the market some year would have helped, but of course there were none.

Saul looked at me, thoughtfully, and declared that I had a point.


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How Normal Is this Abnormality?

Ok, I was going to write about politics or something this week, because we all know climate change causes extreme weather already so why should I have to write the same post about floods and droughts over and over and over and over again, but really? Baton Rouge? There’s a time and a place for just acknowledging what’s going on because people are dying down there. One area resident, who also happens to be the Louisiana state climatologist, told Scientific American (see previous link) the scale of devastation was like that of Hurricane Katrina and that “This is a pretty big deal, many, many, many homes flooded; it is hard to capture that in any one scope of a camera. It’s worse than it appears on television.”

So, however bad it looks to us from the outside? It’s worse than that. We’re going to be coping with the effects of this storm, as a nation, for years.

Again, according to Scientific American (same link!), this specific event can’t be linked to climate change, but extreme weather in general, including flooding, is a sign of climate change. That’s the standard story, and I’ve told it before. But I don’t actually think it’s true anymore. Not in this case, anyway.

The thing is, the reason this storm has been so achingly, awfully bad is that a high pressure zone sat itself down on the East Coast and refused to move, so, therefore, this storm full of Gulf Coast moisture had nowhere to go and just dumped all of its water right there on Louisiana (same link again!). And the thing is, I’ve heard that before.

It seems like every severe weather story I hear lately is the direct result of a blocking high.

So, I went looking around on the internet for a while, trying this search term and that, and finally found an article explaining that yes, stationary high pressure zones, caused by an erratic jet stream ARE the major proximate cause of many different types of extreme weather and, yes, these highs ARE getting more frequent. Because of climate change. Granted, the author was talking about winter extremes, but I see to reason to suppose the same mechanism might not work in the summer, too. The exact mechanism for the more erratic jet stream is still being debated, but seems to have something to do with the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than the lower latitudes are.

So, why did it take me twenty minutes online to find information Scientific American said didn’t exist? I don’t suggest a conspiracy–we’re probably looking at the result of a legitimate editorial decision about how much detail to get into for a popular market article. Also, what, exactly, it means to say a weather event was or was not caused by climate is a bit philosophically murky, anyway.

In the meantime, there are also various droughts (if you click on that link more than a week after I post this you won’t see the information I used, but rather the new, updated drought map. I wish I knew a way around that, but I have bigger fish to fry at the moment).  Some of these droughts are garden-variety, others are severe and unprecedented. California continues to just plain dry up. It’s horrible. Part of Massachusetts are in an Extreme Drought for the first time since the category came into existence (in 1999, but still!). There are other examples. But I’m unable to find out if any of this, except California, are really unusual. Is the US having bizarre weather at the moment?

It’s an important question. Somewhere the weather is always extreme. I don’t know if that’s literally true, but it must be nearly so. It’s a big planet, and a couple of extremes somewhere at any given time is about what you’d expect. Put another way, a certain amount of abnormality is normal. So, if we’re going to talk about evidence of climate change seriously, it’s not enough to just see what extreme weather is making the news lately–we have to know if the extremes we’re seeing are themselves unusual in some way.

It’s like temperature.  It’s easy to notice that it’s hot today, but to know what that heat means, you’ve got to look at it in context–is today’s high above or below the average for your area at this time of the year? 80° F. is just not that impressive in Delaware in August, for example, even if you, personally, are over-heated. Human perceptions of “normal” are easy to fool. So, are we looking at a normal level of abnormality this week or not?

I haven’t been able to find out. Really, what I’m looking for is an extreme weather index, a site that keeps track of, perhaps, the number of weather records broken this week or the number of events labeled “extreme,” and color-codes each part of the country according to whether that number is typical or not. And there is something like that–the Climate Extremes Index, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Except it hasn’t been updated since July of 2015.

This is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration we’re talking about. You’d think they’d be on this sort of thing.

Maybe the up-to-date website I want is out there somewhere and I just don’t have the right search term yet or something. I’m not saying the information doesn’t exist, only that it’s disappointingly hard to find. It’s not on the tip of my search engine. That tells me most people aren’t asking the question.

And that is scary.


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How About that Weather?

Recently, a friend of mine posted a picture on his Facebook page, commenting that he “didn’t know it was that bad.” I didn’t, either, though I did suspect it, and it does not seem to have made the news at all. I’m talking drought figures. Frankly, I am confused by the legality of re-posting pictures online, so I usually don’t. In the interests of avoiding a thousand extra words I’m making an exception and providing the picture. Please, if you own this one and don’t want it here, let me know and I’ll take it down.

 

The legend at the top indicates this is a map of how many more inches of precipitation different parts of the United States would need to get to “PDI -0.5.” A bit of poking around online reveals that PDI is probably the same thing as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, or PDSI, and that -.5 means is more or less the drier boundary of normal for a given area. According to this map, then, as of June 6th, to get to Normal, parts of California would need 9-12 inches of rain, which is a problem because that’s about as much as what that area gets all year.

But we knew California was in trouble. That’s not the surprising part.

The surprising part is the serious drought in the East. Southern Florida apparently needs 12 to 15 inches of rain to get to normal, parts of Vermont, and some parts of the Southern Appalachians need 6 to 9 inches. Where I live, in Maryland, needs up to 3 inches, which might not sound like a lot, but we did just get a solid week of rain. Much of the rest of the East is at least mildly dry. It’s not that any of this is severe (Florida is very rainy, so a proportionately mild or moderate deficit still has a lot of inches), it’s that people act like it’s invisible. I have heard no mention of it on the news, heard nobody (except the friend who posted the picture) talking about it, and I have not found anything discussing any of this online.

According to another graphic on the same site, much of the Eastern US has gotten about half to three-quarters of its normal amount of rainfall so far this year. Another site, one run by the USDA, lists Maryland as having no drought as of June 2nd, with some areas merely “abnormally dry” the week before. The disparity could be due to the use of different methods–calculating the severity of drought is somewhat complicated, since it depends on knowing not only how much moisture a place has but also how much it needs. The dates on the two sites (June 2nd vs. June 6th) could also be relevant.

Personally, I’d go with the site that says Maryland has a bit of an issue. It has been a dry spring. with some parts of the state (like ours) getting no rain at all for weeks on end in April and May. We have also had some fantastic rainstorms, most recently a series of interrelated storms that lasted almost a solid week, but much of that water probably ran off without soaking in–heavy rains on dry soil tend to slide off. I spoke with a farmer who said her neighbor found completely dry soil just a few inches down after the first big downpour of that rainy week.

Which brings up another reason why the reports of Maryland’s drought could be wrong–measured by actual inches of rain as compared to what we typically receive, we could be ok. Measured by soil moisture and groundwater recharge, we might not be; the thing is, Maryland currently has no effective way of checking whether its groundwater is being recharged.

All of this is, of course, weather rather than climate. And in the grand scheme of things, my state’s drought is, at worst, still mild. But the situation is still worth noting for two reasons. One is that this is what climate change looks like–larger, more intense rainfalls less often. It’s not dramatic for us Easterners this week, but it is vaguely, eerily, different from what we’re used to, and we should notice. More importantly, a society that isn’t in the habit of noticing the weather, either as individuals or through the news media, leaves itself vulnerable to being told lies. Like when pretty much everybody except the Eastern US was horribly hot last winter and various climate-denying wags asked “where’s global warming” because the East happened to be snowy.

Personal, casual observation of the weather is not, of course, a reliable measure of climate, that’s why we have climate scientists and data collection protocols and big, giant computers, etc. There are important patterns that just aren’t visible without analysis. But if we abandon looking for those patterns we can see, the step into a dangerous apathy becomes very short.