Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it

I always thought Mark Twain had first said that, but after a bit of googling around I find it isn't clear whether it was Twain, or his friend Charles D. Warner. In any case, it isn't funny any more. We're talking about the weather more than ever, and we could be doing something about it, but we aren't.

I'm not any sort of a meteorologist or climate scientist, but I have a bit to say about the current bizarre weather from the standpoint of an educated lay person who tries to keep up with the latest, and a student of society who thinks about how people are likely to respond to events.

Here in New England, this has been the winter that wasn't. Yesterday the new Governor of Massachusetts was inaugurated out of doors in his suit jacket, without an overcoat. Many in the crowd were in shirtsleeves. Dandelions are blooming, and robins have forgotten to fly south. For the past few nights, we have had no frost. A January thaw is not unusual here, but this is not a thaw because there hasn't been any freeze. After the warmest December since systematic record keeping began, we are already well on our way to an even warmer January. The long range forecast has a cool down to closer to normal temperatures next week, but nothing that will make up for the extraordinary warmth so far.

The official line is that the earth has warmed only about 1 degree farenheit in the past 50 years, which doesn't seem like much. Of course that's the global mean, which includes the oceans and the less volatile tropics. Certainly New England has warmed more than that. Still, we've had plenty of cold winter weather the past few years, and the scientists haven't predicted that we won't still. Rather, when a warm weather pattern sets up, it will be a bit warmer than usual, and a cold weather pattern won't be quite as cold. We really wouldn't notice if the lowest daytime high in January was 17 degrees instead of 15, or if the highest temperature was 54 instead of 52. Rather, we expect the effects of climate change to be observable through indicators on a longer time scale: the date the pond freezes and thaws; the date of the first and last frost; the extent of snow cover over North America on February 1.

But this winter had been really different. They tell us the jet stream is further north than usual, keeping the arctic air under house arrest. No doubt it will eventually spill south and shock the hell out of us. But us lay people are now starting to worry about those positive feedback loops. We're well past the solstice now, and the sun is creeping north, where it gets to work on bare, unfrozen ground and open water instead of snowbanks and ice covered lakes. That means even warmer air, and when that arctic air does head south, it will be much warmed up by the time it gets to Boston. If the snow cover never forms, or retreats more quickly in the spring than usual, does that mean all the more heat to be stored in the oceans and the ground, and a warmer summer and a warmer next winter?

If this does signal a faster pace of warming than expected, that's important. But just as important is how people will respond to this. So far I don't think many people are complaining, other than skiers and maple syrup producers. It's saving folks a bundle on heat and it's making life a lot lazier and easier. Will people in the northeastern U.S. be inclined to see this as a problem? Will it worry them? Will they feel compelled to take serious action? I have to be honest, most people around here seem to be enjoying it and psychologically, it's just a lot to expect that people are going to clamor to make serious collective sacrifices in order to bring back hockey games on the pond in lieu of roller blading around it. Our Mayor for Life wants to build a new City Hall down by the waterfront, and I'm just afraid we're going to have to see it under water before people really start to pay attention. So far, the winter that wasn't is just a pleasant curiosity, to the public and the press.

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