Some interesting anthropogenic global warming (AGW) news has made some headlines recently. A lot has to do with pinning the blame (or not) on human activities. In recent years, the media, “climate activists”, and researchers have been much better at couching research and statements in more scientific terms – using probabilities to describe forecasts, weather events, and outcomes, as they relate to AGW. Instead of pinning EVERY “bad thing” on AGW (literally, remember the “big list” I used to keep, and this list), it is usually suggested that AGW is playing a part and it could get worse in the future.
One thing that many were attuned to recently is whether there would be a declaration that Superstorm Sandy was the direct result of AGW. For the first couple of months after the storm, most weather and climate experts gave the scenario a solid “maybe”. Just recently, a new paper suggests a strong link between from AGW to arctic ice loss to jet stream blocking patterns to Superstorm Sandy. Plausible? Yes. Could the same type of weather pattern and large storm arise without the lack of Arctic sea ice? Yes. In fact, meteorologist, insurance actuaries, and city planners have long know about the potential of strong wind and flood event and how it would affect the New York/New Jersey area. It happened. We weren’t prepared. I discussed this last fall in “Superstorm Risks“. Even here in Wausau, some year an F5 tornado could strike. It will demolish parts of the city. Are we prepared? No. We have an ailment called “short term thinking” and a blind spot for acknowledging low-chance high-impact events. If we really wanted to prepare, we would bury our power lines, make sure all new houses could withstand F5 tornadic winds, and have an emergency fund built up for the county and the city. We don’t. It is up to you to prepare, as an individual.
Further reading: A picture gallery of dramatic storm aftermath pictures along coastlines, including New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy.
As far as the “blocking patterns” referenced earlier, a new study suggests that these blocking patterns that could lead to extended periods of stagnant weather (could be a heat wave, a drought, cold spells, etc…) are driven by AGW. It is an interesting theory on how lesser temperature differences between the equator and the poles means more stagnant air masses, but it was based on only 32 years of data, which is an extremely short time frame when discussing the climate and trying to project into the future (similar to the flu study which only looked at a 12 year period).
In a rather stark turn of events in AGW theory, cosmic rays are now being studied in order to determine their influence on climate change. One study finds that cosmic rays do affect cloud droplet formation but the effect is probably too small to have an effect on the climate. Another study theorizes that cosmic rays might have an effect upon the “electric heartbeat” (related to lightning) of the planet, which in turn could affect the formation of layered clouds. Why is this a “stark turn of events”? Because it was not that long ago when the first scientists to propose the cosmic ray-cloud droplet connection were figuratively ’laughed out of the room’. The scientists (from the Ukraine) had to face withering criticism and conduct experiments on their own before anyone would take them seriously. It is nice to see a more scientific treatment of the subject in the intervening years, even if it is a small effect. With the some of the lowest solar activity in recent decades on tap for the next few years, we might find out if the tiny effects of cosmic rays do regulate the climate in some manner (such as is theorized to have happened during the Maunder Minimum). Sometimes, tiny processes can be amplified in a complex non-linear system such as the atmosphere. On a side note, I am a little sad about the decrease in solar activity. While it might provide some insight into the earth’s climate it will mean less opportunities to view the northern lights.
There few other AGW stories recently that could go on the big list of things that have or will happened because of AGW:
- The monarch butterfly migration could be disrupted. The idea here is that the butterfly is extremely vulnerable to small changes in temperature. I am not so sure. It seems like a rather tenuous theory considering we have had decade-long periods of cooler and alternatively warmer weather here in North America over the last couple centuries, and the butterflies seemed to have made it through.
- Viviparous lizards could go extinct. Again, this seems a bit tenuous (anyway, how it was described in the article). Viviparous lizards have a reproduction method that allows them to survive in colder climates than other lizards. The idea is that if the world warms, these lizards will suffer. I would tend to think they would only suffer if they CANNOT reproduce in warm weather, a key point which was not clearly explained in the article.
- Extreme rainfall events have increased and will continue to increase if the earth continues to warm. This consequence has better theory and data behind it. Warmer air holds more moisture and thus more available to produce rain. However, rain formation is a multi-variable process and there could be a few trends (like less temperature contrast around the globe) that leads to less rain.
- Volcanoes are taking the blame for some of the NON-increase in global temperatures over the last 12 years – perhaps 25% of the reason for the lack of warming. This seems plausible. There have been a few small volcanic eruptions, but no big ones. I would tend to think emissions from jet airplanes would have a larger effect blocking some of the sun’s energy than some of the small volcanoes.
- Many climatologists have explained the possible changes that could occur with AGW as a shift in climate zones. Wisconsin’s climate will be more like Illinois in the future. Ontario’s climate might be more like Wisconsin was in the past. A new paper has tracked some of the changes, and so far some of the shifting of climate zones has occurred. Will it continue in the future. Yes, if this is a longer term trend and we add a couple of degrees on average. I know most people in Wisconsin (strange to say) would welcome such a change, especially after we just had another snowfall.
Finally, I have to revisit one of my pet peeves in the AGW conversation, and that is the use of the terms “tipping point”, “point of no return”, and “irreversible”. These rather dramatic terms are used to describe how once the earth warms up to a certain point there is no going back, the biosphere and the atmosphere will be forever altered, never to return to the former state. It is often suggested that we are already past the “point of no return”. It is certainly possible for the climate system and the biosphere to achieve different stable states. The problem is that these things can and do flip back and forth, and have done so throughout human history. Just recently there have been a couple of reports using these terms again. The melting of the Siberian permafrost is proposed to be a devastating “tipping point” in the climate system. Ice loss in the Canadian arctic (not Greenland) is going to be “irreversible”. The ice loss might continue in the short term and not reverse itself for decades, if AGW predictions are true, but it is hardly “irreversible”. Just 100,000 years ago Greenland was warmer than it is now. Also, as I pointed out just a few years ago, much of the Canadian arctic was warmer than it is now, as little as 1600 years ago! Plants grew in places where there are ice domes now. The Canadian arctic seemed to make it through that past massive warming ok.
The point here is not to diminish potential threats in the future, but to reign in hyperbole. Mass hysteria due to over-hyped threats probably does more harm than good. In that regard, I am encouraged to see at least one ecologist also complaining about the “irreversible” and “tipping point” terminology that is bandied about so often nowadays.
Have a good Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
Posted under AGW, Arctic climate, Climate Change, Ecology, Weather NEws
This post was written by jloew on March 11, 2013