The recent Cold Snap, also known as the Polar Vortex created some enthusiasm in the discussion about what the heck is happening on planet Earth.
Some scientists and observers call it Global Warming. But global processes involve complex variables, and “warming” is hard to reconcile with cold winters. And it may be that warming in one area of the globe will cause cooling in another. Others call it Climate Change, which is not very descriptive because the one thing we do know for sure is that the climate will change. It always has.
Over the last millennium there have been years with no summer as well as periods of extraordinary warmth. Over the last 100,000 years there have been ice ages as well as forests growing on the North Pole. Climate change is inevitable, but most of us are concerned about what has happened in our lifetime and what will happen for our children.
There is, however, robust evidence that human emissions are at least contributing to the changes we are seeing in the Earth’s climate, but again, there are many variables and outcomes, and to most people, it only matters if the climate changes in a way that impacts their life and concerns. When a major weather event comes along, like Hurricane Sandy, or the South Platte flood this last September, it really doesn’t matter to those effected if the event was caused by human activity or long term climatic cycles.
This is why I prefer the descriptive term Climate Chaos. Of course, Colorado has always been a bit volatile, and a favorite expression is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes.” That said, and understood, when the Front Range receives 28 inches of rain in two days, hundreds of tornados strike Oklahoma one afternoon, a 50 foot tsunami hits Japan, and in the San Luis Valley, when we go all summer without a drop of rain and then get 10 inches in one week in September, then go dry as a bone for two months followed by 3 feet of snow, it suggests chaos.
Part of what clouds the discussion of climate is commingling climate with weather. Though related, they are different scientific disciplines. As the old timers say, “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.” Because 75 percent of Americans believe their local TV weather person is the most reliable source of information about climate, every time there is a cold snap, or a heat wave, some weather personalities can’t resist relating it to climate, either making a comment about the foolishness of global warming and the folly of Al Gore, or suggesting that global warming is coming faster than scientists imagined. Neither of these types of comments is correct.
The fact that most people trust their local weather personality as the primary source of science about climate, confuses weather, which comes as “events,” with climate, which comes as “cycles.” We don’t get climate reports on the nightly news because we are most concerned with whether it’s going to rain on our hay or give us a blizzard during calving than we are in whether the carbon dioxide level of the atmosphere is 400 parts per million or 450 ppm.
This isn’t to say that weather and climate exist in separate spheres. A cold winter event like the Polar Vortex is weather driven by forces of climate. It turns out that increased warming in one area of the planet can lead to dramatic cooling in another part of the planet. Because global climate systems are so big, and act on time scales and physical proportions that are difficult for the typical human to relate to, chaos is what we see or experience.
The other obvious factor in this discussion is that there are more humans on Earth, and 80 percent of us live near water. Weather events that impacted a world population of about 1.9 billion prior to the Industrial Revolution, now impact almost 7.5 billion. This makes it difficult to distinguish between incidence and consequence in weather events. The incidence of extreme weather events may be the same as it has been for centuries, but the consequence of those events is much greater due to the greater number of people exposed to it.
In this series I will try to look at the issues of climate chaos from several sides. ❖