Global Warming’s Catastrophic Polarities

This no-brainer appeared in AlterNet.

Climate change is an issue of literal and figurative polar extremes. As the planet inexorably warms, deniers mix in assertions of global cooling with their usual Al Gore insults and political assaults like the recent so-called Climategate snafu.

So far this year, icy temperatures have frozen parts of England, the eastern United States, and even Florida, where iguanas have fallen out of the trees, lured into hibernation by low temperatures. Unfortunately, global warming is on the rise.

Meanwhile, untoward heat has gripped the West Coast of the U.S. broken up only by a recent Pacificstorm event that has summarily soaked its fire-ravaged mountains. In the course of one week this January, America learned that December 2009 was wetter and colder than average, while its first decade of the new millennium was the hottest on record.

No wonder, then, that people around the globe are dizzy with confusion. Careening between these extremes, they are easily manipulated by seeming opposites, environmental, political and otherwise. All of this, in the end, is complicated by the lack of consensus from gun-shy scientists, who are lately more busy fending off (or feeding off of, depending on the scientist) ludicrous sideshows like Climategate than they are confidently extrapolating the destabilizing scenarios to come, a move that might give all their number-crunching some real-world meaning.

Like, for example, the possibility of a shutdown in thermohaline circulation, the oceanic conveyor belt that circulates warm weather and water poleward, which could plunge some landmasses of the North Atlantic into a scenario reminiscent of the Little Ice Age. That’s a period of cooling that, you guessed it, occurred after extensive warming called the Medieval Warm Period. Talk about your vertigo of information.

“One of the things is that there are gaps in what we scientists understand, because of gaps in technology,” Sharon LeDuc, chief of staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climatic Data Center, explained by phone to AlterNet. “A lot of looking forward depends on the modeling and simulations we do, and they don’t always agree.

“What they do agree upon is, predictably enough, extremes. Extremes that are further empowered by what little consensus their modeling can cobble together. There are certain things they agree on, such as the hydrological cycle,” LeDuc added. “There will be drying in the subtropical regions but precipitation in higher latitudes. The smaller scales are where the uncertainty lies. The resolution of these models is very coarse.”

Unfortunately for the rest of us, we live, work and die in those smaller scales LeDuc spoke of. And we need to be able to connect dots from the macro-environmental changes taking place to the micro-environmental situation in our own cities.

Sure, the planet was the hottest it’s ever been on record in the ’00s, but what does that have to do with frozen iguanas falling into Floridian truck beds? So far, it’s getting mostly noise from scientists, some of whom explain that the dots can’t be connected.

The overall warming of the globe and the volatile temperature fluctuations you’re experiencing? No comment.

“Be very careful here,” Gavin Schmidt, climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and contributor to the blog RealClimate, told AlterNet. “There is some evidence for more intense precipitation occurring with climate change, but claiming that volatile temperature fluctuations are related is not supported at all. There is no evidence whatsoever that the cold temperatures at the beginning of the year were related to climate change.”

That’s probably news to China’s Beijing Meteorological Bureau, whose Guo Hu explicitly linked the two in a statement to Beijing News. “In the context of global warming,” Guo said, “extreme atmospheric flows are causing extreme climate incidents to appear more frequently, such as the summer’s rainstorms and last year’s ice storm disaster in southern China.”

Even the U.N. Environmental Program’s Jan Liu agreed to such a possibility in a previous article I wrote for AlterNet on intensifying weather events and thermohaline shutdown. “While the general average trend is one of a warming climate,” he said, “this does not mean that extreme cold events or snowstorms will not take place. In fact, as you rightly point out, climate change may even contribute to an increasing intensity of snowstorms, as moisture levels in the atmosphere rise.”

Those extreme atmospheric flows and moisture levels may problematize America’s consensual culprit behind our current cold snap in the north Atlantic, known as Arctic Oscillation. That’s an atmospheric pressure pattern that governs the bitterly cold winds and even sea-ice movement in the Arctic. And right now, it’s nearly off the charts, as New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin explained, with weakening wind currents that are unleashing freezing Arctic storms on the northern hemisphere. Hence, our butt-cold winters on the East Coast, wildlife crises in the UK, and, yes, iguanas dropping out of Florida trees.

But somehow, the idea that global warming, which is admittedly monkeying with global atmospheric pressures and flows, has nothing to do with either a weakening Arctic Oscillation, currently as negative as it’s been since the ’50s, or weakening Gulf Stream, that could possibly lead to a decrease in thermohaline circulation capable of plunging Europe into another ice age, is a non-starter among not just deniers but also climate-change true believers. Which is ridiculous, if you think about it.

Both are always careful to remind the would-be dot-connectors that we are confusing weather with climate, even though they admit they have little scientific clue as to where one begins and the other ends. Logic dictates you can’t have weather without a climate, and right now, ours is off its moorings. Anthropogenic warming has thrown what was once a stable climate into disarray, and may be leading as much to ruinous droughts as to record-breaking freezes. And arbitrarily separating them into linear camps utterly misses the point of global warming’s greatest lesson: Volatility is the new normal, in weather, in the economy, in politics, in whatever. And woe to those who aren’t ready to adapt to the new normal.

“This is perhaps the most difficult issue, the greatest challenge, that humanity has ever faced,” warned Michael Schlesinger, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s respected climatologist, who has been openly concerned about the catastrophic effects of a THC shutdown. “We are not going to be given a second chance to get this right. The world’s coupled atmosphere/ocean general circulation models (A/O GCM’s), including mine,” he told AlterNet, “simulate a slowdown of the THC this century due to global warming. It is difficult to verify this now with observations because it is early in the 21st century and any slowdown would be small now, and the THC intensity is very noisy. It has large year-to-year natural variability, so it will take a few decades of observations to detect the slowdown of the THC by averaging out the noise over time.”

LeDuc agreed. “Scientists don’t understand the models themselves, so it’s going to be controversial until we learn more about it,” she said. “We don’t have nearly as many observations in our oceans as we need. But if it shuts down, it’s a different climate in a number of different places.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have the kind of time Schlesinger, LeDuc and other experts in this field say we need to put strong policies into place mitigating the aftermath of their probable occurrence. By the time we get the consensus we need, it will probably be way too late to do anything substantial about it.

The “uncertainty of our future climate is whether or not there are tipping points, such as a shutdown of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation and the loss of the Greenland ice sheet, and, if they exist, how close we are to them,” Schlesinger wrote in the aptly titled 2008 policy brief ” Some Hard Truths You Should Know About Global Warming.”

“The only way to know for certain is after the fact of crossing one.” In other words, consensual certainty, whether it’s of the possible variety respected by scientists or the impossible kind favored by global warming skeptics with undisclosed political and economic agendas, is not the champion but the enemy of change when it comes to this ultimate life-or-death issue.

Waiting around for scientists to agree that human-induced climate change’s anomalous warming and manipulation of traditionally stable atmospheric pressures and oceanic flows could in fact be dangerously altering the Arctic Oscillation, thermohaline circulation or more is a comparative waste of our time and money. Especially since, as current events have painfully confirmed, we are running out of both. Fast. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — or is that climate scientist? — to figure out that an exponentially warming planet can spawn both droughts and freezes in as tender an ecological balance as ours.

Nor is it difficult to imagine the ramifications of such ramping, whether in alarmist cinema like The Age of Stupid or sober presentations like An Inconvenient Truth. Everything is connected, the cliche

goes, and that includes our climate and weather. Screw with one piece of the puzzle, especially one as important as global temperature, and the whole picture blurs into something else entirely. And something else is exactly what we’re currently experiencing, no matter what the believers or deniers say.

We are far from climatological business as usual. So while entities like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are busy offering conservative projections that repeatedly miss reality’s mark, those of us with an ability to connect dots without the benefit of intricate modeling will be busy working the outer reaches of those projections. Which is to say, closer to reality, and all of its environmental discontents. You can thank us later.

“If we are smart, we can handle this problem,” Schlesinger concluded. “If not, Mother Nature most certainly will.”

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