It snowed in Cairo for the first time in 100 years. The United Kingdom had the strongest tidal surge in 60 years. In January, Alaskans mothballed their jackets, and bears, like little children, refused to go to sleep.
The earth’s weather has become erratic at best. Some meteorologists predict this is the new normal. New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert calls it “The Sixth Extinction” in her new book.
It doesn’t take much to see that the earth’s weather has been destabilized.
If Kolbert is right and we are headed for a mass extinction, then this will be the first time that a species had its own window of awareness as it disappears from the planet. British Labour Party Leader, Ed Miliband said, after seeing the damage of the recent United Kingdom storms, “We are sleepwalking to the ultimate crisis.”
Let’s put this fact on the table. The physics of weather is straightforward, but the prediction of climate requires time, which the earth and humans may not have.
It is basic physics. A warmer atmosphere produces more energy and more moisture from evaporation. Rutgers University Climatologist Jennifer Francis explains, “More energy and moisture will mean more storms in many places.” Energy is released when cold meets hot and the jet stream is the conveyor belt of weather.
The current thinking is that heavy rains in Indonesia, warm Pacific Ocean water, and unusual pressure systems dragged warm air over Alaska where it met cold Arctic Air and then met the jet stream’s warm southerly breeze and the air temperature difference caused it to pick up speed and moisture rapidly till it hit the United Kingdom full force and then flowed into the Middle East.
Francis’ biggest fear is that the weather will get stuck in this pattern indefinitely and it will become the new normal. It will become the planet’s climate. The Met, the British weather office, summed it up nicely, “disruptions of usual weather patterns may be how climate change may manifest itself.”
Simply put, the more warm air and warm water, the more disruption is likely and that is not speculation. The climate piece of the equation asks, “What is forcing an uncontrolled heating pattern and will this produce a long-term shift in climate?”
The answer, according to many scientific explanations and measurable events, is carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Once again this is physics. CO2 heats the air, and over the last 100 years CO2 has increased to what is believed to be its highest level in several million years, during a period when the Arctic ice had melted and Greenland was a lush savannah.
The situation becomes anthropogenic–human caused–if you believe in the connection between CO2 and increased heat and that humans are partly responsible for the increasing quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere. Now for the wrinkle. It appears that some people believe that somehow–through some yet undiscovered magic–that the laws of nature will scrub out the CO2 or there is a special trap door in the atmosphere that will release the CO2 at a certain, and currently unknowable, level. Regardless, if you believe that CO2 has increased and the physics that says it heats the air then the effects on the weather–and eventually climate–are caused by humans.
A researcher at Texas A&M, Yuan Zhang connected the dots between air pollution, which is largely CO2 and large and small particles, and weather patterns by studying the most polluted country on the planet, China.
“The models clearly show,” he writes, “that pollution originating from Asia has an impact on the upper atmosphere and it appears to make such storms or cyclones even stronger.”
He referenced the discovery that most of the unpredictable weather, as discussed earlier, is generated from the water and air in the East Pacific. He continues, “This pollution affects cloud formations, precipitation, storm intensity and eventually climate and important consequences on the weather pattern over North America.”
Zhang wrote this drawing a further anthropogenic connection to both weather and climate.
This human connection between weather and climate is exactly the cause of confusion. Regularly occurring weather patterns like El Nino and La Nina are confronting an altered environment: warmer air, warmer water, and less cooling ice in the Arctic. Translating the Met’s view, our new climate is erratic weather.
Our new climate will be a continual litany of extremes which will be compounded by continued human effect. Climate Change will be the side show to weather until the extremes become so strong that it threatens most human life.
Survival for the next 80 years will depend on modern infrastructure built to withstand these extremes. This is the lesson being learned in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the United States has neglected its core infrastructure for nearly 20 years.
Of the 85,000 dams, some containing coal ash like in North Carolina, 65 percent have been rated as critical and in danger of collapsing. Over 65,000 bridges are in need of repair to withstand the stress of super-charged floods or winds. Flood defenses like the ones just built in New Orleans and being built in New Jersey are being developed with outdated 100-year flood maps. Clearly, anyone looking at the chart above would know that old assumptions must be discarded. The United States is spending billions of dollars on outdated weather assumptions.
The United States needs to spend nearly a trillion dollars on its water systems. Some 70 percent of its water pipes will “age out” in the next two decades and need to be replaced, before breaks waste what little water will be left. Hundreds of water treatment plants need to be moved to higher ground, because of already documented sea level rise. This was highlighted in President Clinton’s Critical Infrastructure Protection report of 1998 and very little has been done.
Miliband is right. We are sleepwalking into an extreme weather disaster.
About William Church
William Church’s articles have appeared in publications that range from Wired, International Journal of the Red Cross, to the Sudan Tribune, and has been quoted extensively in publications like Voice of America, and the BBC.
During the 1990s he contributed foreign threat assessments to President Clinton’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Commission, and became a well-known expert on information warfare and advised the United Nations Security Council in Africa.