Saturday, January 29, 2011

four levels of impact

--climate happenings are at blisterdata--

2010 was the hottest year on record. December 2010 had the smallest winter sea ice cover in the Arctic on record. Surface temperatures in Canada and Greenland in that month ran 8-11 C (15-20 F) above normal. In parts of the Arctic, surface temps have been 21 C (38 F) above normal for more than a month. Extremely mild temperatures in the far north cause furiously cold weather farther south. Europe, East Asia, and the U.S. are suffering through another awful winter, with one snowstorm chasing another. Animals are dying of exposure in places as different as Vietnam, England, Lake Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida.

Words and phrases are being coined to deal with the new reality. The NYT made up arctic fence, as in the Jan 25 article header "the cold jumps the arctic fence, stoking winter's fury".
The news agency IPS invented arctic defrost, as in the Jan 28 headline "arctic defrost dumping snow on U.S. and Europe".

Information, technical and complicated, is streamlined and simplified. The findings by Petoukhov/Semonov (meanwhile reviewed at Real Climate) are now put more plainly, e.g. by A. Levermann (Potsdam): "global warming is melting the ice in the Arctic Ocean; this leads to high pressure areas above Siberia, which drives extremely cold winds towards Europe."

J. Overland (NOAA) puts this climate happening in the context of seasons: "as more sea ice melts, there is more open water to absorb the summer's heat. A day of 24-hour summer sun in the Arctic puts more heat on the surface than a day in the tropics. That extra heat in the ocean is gradually released into the lower atmosphere from October to January as the region slowly re-freezes months later than normal ... a large part of the Arctic Ocean is radiating heat instead of being cold and ice-covered. That has disrupted wind circulation patterns."

As a result, in south Florida, December was the coldest on record, followed by what looks to become the wettest January on record. That's the local meaning of "jumping the arctic fence".

Climate impacts culture. And at this point, it appears to me one can identify four levels of impact.

The first level, the lightest, is frivolous. Last week I browsed in the Jan 2011 issue of Garden Railway Magazine. The magazine featured an article of a beautiful garden railroad by a couple in Colorado, who describe the challenges to preserve the woodsy flavor of their trains, since Colorado's abnormal dry weather had killed all their spruces. Now they switch to hardier variants. The issue also featured an essay by a gent in Nevada. His trains were supposed to be desert trains, but now, as he writes, he needs to dump tons of poison in his yard, because Nevada's abnormal wet weather is turning his backyard desert green, lush, and weedy.

The second level is tougher, on the adventurous side. The freak snow in Washington, D.C., which shattered records in Philadelphia and New York, shut down the traffic flow, with the result that some motorists suffered a twelve hour commute from work (in Crystal City) to the 'burbs along George Washington Parkway.

The third level is life-threatening. The January 2011 issue of Scientific American features "Casualties of Climate Change," by A. de Sherbinin, K. Warner, and C. Ehrhart, pp. 64-71. The message is, first, that climate change has arrived, echoing what B. McKibben noted two years ago in Eaarth, and, second, that we can now interpret specific weather events as consequences of carbon emissions. Mozambique is "under siege" (p. 67) because "the climate is turning ever more unforgiving ... floods periodically inundate farms and towns ... droughts have become increasingly common". Vietnam faces "a rising sea" in the Mekong Delta (p. 68); "in recent decades extreme floods have increasingly threatened growing areas". Mexico and Central America face "deadly storms" and "crippling drought," making "migration forced by climate change ... the most important humanitarian challenge of the 21st century" (p. 70).

The fourth level is visible in Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt. I think M. Klare (Hampshire College) was the first to connect the dots. As weather oscillations grow violent, and seasonal swings become sharper, crop yields are declining. Farmers love gentle weather: a bit of rain followed by a bit of sunshine. What they hate is downpours alternating with droughts. Crops rot in puddles or wilt in the sun. Storms tear off produce; deluges break stalks and push the grain in the mud. Harvests shrink. Climate change tightens supplies while demand stays constant. Food prices rise.

In much of North Africa and the Middle East, dictators rule with U.S. backing, human rights count for shit, unemployment is ridiculously high, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. These conditions have been normal -- and stable -- for decades. Now a new event happens: a climate-induced rise in food prices, just when people in these nations deal with falling wages.

Hence riots erupt. And since everything else gives reason for anger anyway, the riots spread and turn into rebellion. Pricey food is the tipping point. It starts with bad weather, and it ends with citizens storming their rulers' palaces.

Revolution is level four.

Update 30 Jan 11: Indeed! Climate Progress just published the confirmation.

Seventy-one months left.

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