Weather or Not

With global warming, the weather is just the same, only more so

May 31st 2011

   I was pleased when I found a plug-in for my blog that gave the average levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.  I regard climate change to be the greatest threat humanity faces over the next century, and the levels attained, according to the display, were terrifying.  393.18 parts per million.
There was just one problem: it was wrong.  It was out of date, and badly so.
The  US government’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, came out with a report this week that CO2 peaked last week at 394.97ppm. That set a new record for greatest concentrations of CO2.
To give the numbers some perspective, the ice core samples show that for most of the last millennium, CO2 levels stayed within a couple of points of 282ppm.  That was high by Holocene standards.  Over the previous 450,000 years, it usually ranged between 290ppm and 190ppm, in a cycle running between 100,000 and 125,000 years.  Big, dramatic falls were known to occur over the period of 10,000 years, usually triggering an ice age.  Over the past 450,000 years, the highest level recorded prior to the past hundred years was 314ppm, some 4,700 years ago. That may have played a significant role in humanity migrating out beyond the tropics.  
Late in the 16th century, it took a sudden and dramatic dip, down to 276ppm.  It recovered, staying around 277ppm until 1800, when it suddenly jumped to 283ppm.  It leveled out for a couple of decades, and then began the climb that is affecting our daily lives today.  It hit 300ppm around 1925, and 350ppm around 1989.
We’re now on pace to break 400ppm by late 2015.  Remember, this is a shifting reading where a “significant” change prior to 1800 was seen as swings of 5ppm in the space of a couple of centuries.
In the past century, it has swung upward and upward only, by over 100ppm.
That’s pretty significant.
Carbon Dioxide is the main player in global warming.  At 388ppm, it increased radiative forcing (heating) by 1.66 Watts per square meter of earth.  That’s a lot of energy.  Methane, which is presently two and a half times historic levels, contributes an additional .48 Watts/square meter.
Much of the increase in methane levels is, like carbon dioxide, anthropogenic in origin.  The earth, minus humanity, produces about 225 megatons of methane a year.  With human sources (including landfills, ruminants, waste treatment and biomass burning, that number jumps to 600 megatons a year.  This is unfortunate, since the earth can only reabsorb 580 megatons a year.  That’s why it’s two and a half times its historic level.
Carbon Dioxide has a similar story.  Natural emissions far exceed human emissions, but the relatively tiny human emissions tipped the scale.  If you have a super accurate scale, and put weights weighing precisely one ton on each side, the scale stays in balance.  However, if you put a feather on one of the ton weights, the scale shifts to the heavier side.
The growth in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 almost exactly match the emissions caused by human sources.
It’s all known beyond a shadow of a doubt, and nobody except American right wingers and a scattering of crackpots in the rest of the world think otherwise.
One problem in the US is that even if you can get people to admit that climate change is real, they see it as a problem 50 or 100 years down the road, and limited to shoreline areas.  Even if all those dumb climatologists and other commie scientists are somehow right, despite towering geniuses like Senator Inhofe and Exxon who say they are wrong, it’s no big deal.  A mild inconvenience for great grandkids you’ll never meet anyway who were silly enough to live and work near the beach.
But the problem we face here and now isn’t some esoteric numbers that have no direct effect on human health, or ocean rises measured in centimeters per century; it’s the weather.
With global warming, the weather is still the weather, only more so.
While the long-range worries are about climate shifts, with wet areas becoming dry and vice versa, humans are scurrying to adapt even as much of the flora and fauna that make up the food chain are dying out. We’re in one of the biggest extinction-level events in earth’s history right now, and it’s happening much faster and more dramatically than most, some of which are measured over millions of years.  Even if we can adapt agriculture fast enough to keep our billions alive, the rest of nature, which is a vast support system we utterly depend upon, is crumbling.  But even that is still decades off, we think.  We hope, anyway.  Nobody’s quite sure what the tipping point is for changes in the climate patterns.  We just know we can expect them.  And when they come, they will be very expensive, and cost mass migrations and probably billions of deaths.
But here and now, the weather is getting wilder.
Now, the deniers love to say that you can’t point to any particular weather event and say it is a result of global warming.  And that’s perfectly true.  You can’t.
I once rolled three yahtzees (five die, all of the same value) in a row.  The odds of that happening are 2,171,747,375 to 1.  Forgive the sudden change in subject, but I just wanted to point out that even though you can never predict how the dice will roll, there are very specific odds on what sorts of results you might get.  The odds of rolling a yahtzee are 1,295 to 1. I rolled three in a row, which only happens once in every couple of billion throws, and my odds of rolling a fourth yahtzee were…1,295 to 1 against.
You can’t predict any given roll of the dice.  But you can predict the frequency in which they will fall a particular way, reliably.  It’s why casinos invariably make money on the crap tables.  The odds are stacked just slightly in their favor.
You can’t say any one weather event stems from global warming, but when you get a series of weather events, you begin to get a pattern.  (Climate is just a whole bunch of weather over a period of time, and it’s amazing how many people don’t get that climate change, of necessity, entails weather change.)
Deniers can’t think that way.  I remember back when the tobacco industry was spending millions of dollars to debunk the science that smoking was bad for you (and featured some of the same players who argue that climate change is a fraud), I had one fellow tell me that you can’t prove that cigarettes cause cancer unless you can show that one specific cigarette is what triggered the cancer.
“Mr. Jones, we’ve narrowed it down.  Your stage four lung cancer was caused by a Pall Mall that you smoked on July 23rd, 1976.  If you had not smoked that particular cigarette, you would be fine now.“
This is what passes for thinking in the right wing.
We’re seeing changes in the weather all over the world.  I just watched a video today of two immense waterspouts sighted just off-shore near Sydney, Australia.  It’s almost winter-time.  Waterspouts?  Really?
Tornadoes have been making the news lately in the United States.  And tornado season, which is longer and more widespread than it used to be, is going to keep on ramping up.  Not just over the next 30 or 50 or 100 years, but next week.  I’m in far Northern California, and we’ve had several days of rain, heavy at times, with snow mixed in.  That’s pretty unusual, even for us.  But that cold wet air is moving due east, and there is a big glob of very warm moist air that has pushed up from the Gulf, which is already at record surface temperatures.  Guess what’s going to happen when those air masses meet  in the upper midwest?  That’s right: housing prices in Muncie, Indiana might fall.  As might some of the houses themselves.  The upper northwest might see tornadic events to rival those in Alabama and Joplin, Missouri.
And the US, which hasn’t had a major hurricane in a few years, is likely to get hammered this year.  Normally, the statistics about hurricane behavior are a bit like those of rolling the dice, but Mother Nature likes to load the dice.  The long range says a very warm wet Gulf zone, with a jet stream moving up from about New Mexico to Ohio and into Ontario, so no sheer to break hurricanes up, and a persistent tropical low over the Caribbean. This means that the US might be hurricane alley this year.  And thanks to global warming, we’re seeing bigger hurricanes then we used to get.
It’s the same all over the world.  The weather is MAGNIFIED.  Bigger droughts.  Bigger snowstorms.  Bigger floods.  The weather is just the same, only more so.
And it’s not going away.  It’s just going to keep getting worse.
No matter what we do.
But what we can do is try to make sure the place is still inhabitable for those great grandkids we’ll never meet.
If we can manage it.


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