Gwynne Dyer: It’s abrupt climate change, stupid
This is not how it was supposed to happen.
The standard climate change predictions said that people in the tropics and the sub-tropics would be badly hurt by global warming long before the people living in the temperate zones, farther away from the equator, were feeling much pain at all.
That was unfair, because it was the people of the rich countries in the temperate zone—North America, Europe, and Japan, mainly—who industrialised early and started burning large amounts of fossil fuel as long as two centuries ago. That’s how they got rich. Their emissions of carbon dioxide over the years account for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin that are now in the atmosphere, causing the warming, yet they get hurt least and last.
Well, what did you expect? The gods of climate are almost certainly sky gods, and sky gods are never fair. But they have always liked jokes, especially cruel ones, and they have come up with a great one this time. The people of the temperate zones are going to get hurt early after all, but not by gradual warming. Their weather is just going to get more and more extreme: heat waves, blizzards, and flooding on an unprecedented scale.
“In 2012 we had the second wettest winter on record and this winter is a one-in-250-years event,” British opposition leader Ed Milliband told the Observer newspaper on February 14. “If you keep throwing the dice and you keep getting sixes then the dice are loaded. Something is going on.”
The “something” is abrupt climate change. In Britain, it’s an unprecedented series of great storms blowing in off the North Atlantic, dropping enormous amounts of rain and causing disastrous floods. In the United States and Canada, it’s huge blizzards, ice-storms, and record low temperatures that last much longer and reach much further south than normal. Welcome to the “temperate” zone of the northern hemisphere.
There have been extremes in the “temperate” parts of the southern hemisphere, too. Australia has just had its hottest year ever, with record-breaking heat waves and severe bush fires. Argentina had one of its worst-ever heat waves in December, and parts of Brazil had record rainfall, floods and landslides. But that is probably just the result of gradual, relentless warming. The abrupt changes seem to be mainly in the northern hemisphere.
Geography may explain the differences. There isn’t all that much land in the southern temperate zone, and the vast expanses of ocean that surround it moderate the land temperatures. Moreover, the polar jet stream in the southern hemisphere simply circles the Antarctic continent, and does not operate over land— whereas the northern polar jet stream flows right across North America and Europe. And it’s the jet stream that matters.
The extreme weather trend in North America and Europe is less than five years old, so the science that might explain exactly what is happening is still quite tentative. The first hypothesis that sounded plausible, published in 2012 in Geophysical Letters, blamed a slowing of the northern hemisphere’s polar jet stream.
The paper, entitled “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes”, was written by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors’ methodology has been challenged by other climate scientists, but I think that in the end Francis and Vavrus will turn out to be largely right. That is not good news.
They start with the fact that the Arctic has been warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, so the difference in temperature between the Arctic air mass and the air over the temperate zone has been shrinking. Since that difference in temperature is what drives the jet stream that flows along the boundary between the two air masses, a lower difference means a slower jet stream.
Now, a fast jet stream travels in a pretty straight line around the planet from west to east, just like a mountain stream goes pretty straight downhill. A slower jet stream, however, meanders like a river crossing a flood—and the big loops it makes extend much further south and north than when it was moving fast.
In a big southerly loop, you will have Arctic air much further south than usual, while there will be relatively warm air from the temperate air mass in a northerly loop that extends up into the Arctic. Moreover, the slower-moving jet stream tends to get “stuck”, so that a given kind of weather—snow or rain or heat—will stay longer over the same area.
Hence the “polar-vortex” winter in North America this year, the record snowfalls in Japan in 2012 and again this winter, the lethal heat waves in the eastern U.S. in 2012—and the floods in Britain this winter.
“They’ve been pummelled by storm after storm this winter [in Britain],” said Francis at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago last week. “It’s been amazing what’s going on, and it’s because the pattern this winter has been stuck in one place ever since early December.” There’s no particular reason to think that it will move on soon, either.
Feb 17, 2014 at 4:04pm
What's astounding is that the earth provides an ancient and fantastic example of massive clean safe inexpensive bulk energy that has led to: molten salt thorium nuclear reactor technology.
Human beings are fantastic at grabbing great economical deals when given to them. The reason fossil fuels are popular is that people can cheaply dig or pump it out of the ground almost everywhere in the world. And sell it for good money. And the atmosphere continues to be the open sewer for all their CO2 wastes. This will continue disregardless of the flood of very well researched reports... and articles from G. Dyer.
Let's advocate for a cheap lazy and highly profitable alternative to fossil fuels. Thorium technology, more specifically Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors - LFTR, is probably the best substitute for fossil fuels. Cheap, safe, clean, easy to get. If mass produced in scalable modular form, seven billion+ people in the world would barely notice the switch from fossil fuels to nuclear and economies would hum. Businesses and manufacturing would boom to mass produce and service LFTRs in almost every community on the earth.
If you don't think so, check this out and tell me it can't happen:
Clean Safe Energy from Thorium
How Thorium can save the world: environmentalist Salim Zwein at TEDx-Beirut 2012
Feb 17, 2014 at 6:12pm
Of course it's climate change, climate is always changing. But I thought it was global warming - how come they dropped that term?
Feb 17, 2014 at 6:13pm
oh and thanks for calling us all stupid gwynne.
SPY vs SPY
Feb 17, 2014 at 6:53pm
I wrote this once before - however I think it is worth writing again.
The Earth has a Circumference of about 25,000 miles or 40,000 kilometers - 60% of the Equator (15,000 miles) is over the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.
The Equatorial Zone over the oceans can heat up to over 80 Degrees Fahrenheit.
If you take a narrow band of Ocean 100 miles north and south of the Equator - that would be an area of 3,000,000 square Miles.
Millions if not billions of tons of ocean water evaporate from this zone and the more heat that hits this area = more evaporation. It is that simple!!
We will see more rain, more snow and in that wind, is the equalization of hot and cold air - more heat = the greater power in storms.
Hurricanes, Tornadoes, winter Blizzards = we can keep on denying this till we either Drown of Freeze an 50 foot snow bank.
Why in Gods Name do we listen or give a voice to the very Folks and Politicians who make their living from Fossil Fuels????
Feb 17, 2014 at 7:30pm
I agree on thorium reactors. The technology was discarded in the 50's because it did nto produce fissionaly material for bombs. however it is reasonably safe and probbaly the best transitional energy source until greener technologies are mor efficient & economical.
As to the comment by Realist, re the terms Global warming & Climate Change, the term climate change actually predates the term Global warming by a couple of decades. Global warming actually only refers to the average temperature of the earth and has been misused. Gilbert Plass coined the term Climate change in a 1956 study 'The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change. The first use of the term Global warming was in an article in Science by Wallace S. Broecker "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?" That was in 1975, 20 years later.
Look it up.
Feb 17, 2014 at 9:36pm
I saw a different lady (not Francis) explain the same thing quite differently but also saying that these exact things would happen too. (The Stuck weather systems) Francis's theory was much easier to understand though. The other lady spoke for an hour on video about how and why we would be in for more droughts and floods and heatwaves and freeze ups because of stuck weather systems(for decades, I think).
Feb 17, 2014 at 9:54pm
@realist - Global climate change is more accurate. The climate's changing, and some areas are becoming warmer, some colder, though the global average of "warming" still holds 'cause we're trapping more heat with the gasses we're producing more of. Lots on the internet for you if you're keen!
Feb 17, 2014 at 10:33pm
Here's an example from Wales taken from a British newspaper: The road below Harlech Castle is about 10 metres above sea level and the sea is nearly one kilometre away. Harlech Castle was built with a 'Sea Gate' which stands higher than the road. This means that when it was built between 1282 and 1289 the sea level was more than 10 metres higher than today. This tells us that sea levels were higher due to the Medieval Warm Period. It also tells us that the MWP was warmer than today. Was Man to blame?
(who knows, but you can be damn sure that someone will sell you carbon credits, green paint or at the very least books, talks and articles to make it (weather) all go away. I very distinctly remember vast differences in winters when I was a kid and no one was blaming fossil. Take a geology course to give you some perspective. If you want to blame someone, blame Mr. Sun, sunspots, solar flares etc. This whole movement is becoming uncomfortably close to a medieval religion where every crop failure or 'unusual' weather happening is blamed on an earthly cause, usually one of your neighbors. I just don't buy this crap anymore)
Feb 18, 2014 at 8:05am
Mainland UK is rising due to isostatic rebound. This is due to the ice melt from the last glacial period 10,000 years ago. It is actually tilting on an axis north east to south west. This means that the north west is rising while the south east is sinking.
The land, as well as the sea bed, is continually rising or falling around the world, so using changes of apparent sea level as evidence for or against global warming is simply a propaganda tool.
Feb 18, 2014 at 8:50am
For those of you good at math or finance here is a more scary way of thinking about what is happening in temperate zones. Consider the week to week variance in weather. For a given place in the world this number has been constant since we started making measurements. This is to be expected from any large complicated system. It is the same with a given stock, the price may go up and down but the rate of it changing for 98% of stocks is remarkably stable. However something started happening 6 or 7 years ago and it has become quite obvious in the last 2 years. The variance has decreased. While most temperate locations haven't seen their average rainfall or temperature change very much how long it rains for or how long it doesn't rain for has increased. We might have an extremely wet June and no rain for July and August. We still got the same amount of rain but it all fell at once. We might get a heat wave for 4 weeks and then a cool period in for 4 weeks. The average temperature is still the same but 10 years ago the longest heat wave would have been less than a week.
It takes a huge change to the fundamentals of a system for the variance to change.