9 09 2012

People are starting to notice that the weather is getting weird.  It’s drier than it’s ever been, it’s wetter than it’s ever been, it’s hotter than it’s ever been, and here and there it’s still getting colder than it’s ever been, or at least snowing, more than it ever has.  I’ll explain that in a moment.

The most ominous changes are taking place where few of us witness them–in the Arctic Ocean and the thinly inhabited, long-frozen lands surrounding it.  This year, the Arctic ice shelf has shrunk more than it ever has before, even before it reaches its maximum shrinkage point in mid-September.  The dark, open Arctic Ocean is absorbing more heat than it has in millenia, warming the Arctic still further.  Just a few years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thought the Arctic might be ice-free in the summer by the end of this century.  Now it’s looking more like that historic event will happen by the end of this decade.

The arctic’s warming is a strong driver for our freakier weather.  The one characteristic that unites all the different modes–rain, drought, heat, cold–is that they are moving much more slowly than we are used to seeing weather move.  Tropical Storm Beryl lingered for days over Florida.  Hurricane Isaac inched its way through Louisiana and up the Mississippi Valley. Super-hot temperatures roasted the Western and Central U.S. for weeks without relief.

The driver, or lack of one, in all these cases is the diminishing temperature difference between the Arctic and the rest of the planet.  Here’s how George Monbiot describes this new weather pattern:

The north polar jet stream is an air current several hundred kilometres wide, travelling eastwards around the hemisphere. It functions as a barrier, separating the cold, wet weather to the north from the warmer, drier weather to the south. Many of the variations in our weather are caused by great travelling meanders – or Rossby waves – in the jet stream.

Arctic heating,… both slows the Rossby waves and makes them steeper and wider. Instead of moving on rapidly, the weather gets stuck. Regions to the south of the stalled meander wait for weeks or months for rain; regions to the north (or underneath it) wait for weeks or months for a break from the rain. Instead of a benign succession of sunshine and showers, we get droughts or floods. During the winter a slow, steep meander can connect us directly to the polar weather, dragging severe ice and snow far to the south of its usual range. This mechanism goes a long way towards explaining the shift to sustained – and therefore extreme – weather patterns around the northern hemisphere.

And how are our governments and the businesses that drive them responding to this alarm bell?  They are treating the retreat of the ice as if it were the opening of a treasure trove, and rushing in after the quantities of fish and fossil fuels that now lie exposed for exploitation.  Their only concern seems to be how many fish they can catch before oil spills decimate the piscene population.  They seem heedless of, the possibility of waking the fire-breathing dragon who guards this hoard.

For not all the fossil fuels coming to the surface in the Arctic are under human control. as Albert Bates reports.   As the North Polar region of our planet warms and melts, enormous quantities of methane are starting to seep to the surface, and the amount of methane entering the atmosphere is, apparently, snowballing, so to speak.  A decade ago, the typical methane seep was perhaps a few meters across; now areas as big as a kilometer in diameter are commonplace, both on land and at sea.  The average methane level of the Arctic atmosphere is the highest it has been in 400,000 years.  Four hundred thousand years ago is about when humans first started making our own fires.  This is not exactly a digression–we may be about to ignite much, much bigger fires.

The best-case scenario for runaway methane release is runaway global warming, in which any success we have in curbing our carbon dioxide emissions is negated by massive amounts of methane–which degrades in a few decades–good news–to carbon dioxide–the bad news.  This could well result in the extinction of most complex life forms on the planet, as we and all our relatives slowly smother in a newly hostile atmosphere of our own creation.

The worst-case scenario involves the fact that methane is highly combustible at concentrations of between five and fifteen percent, and, when combined with water vapor, heavier than air, so that it is not out of the question that methane fireballs, ignited by lightning or by flares from Arctic oil wells,  will roll across the Earth’s surface, barbecuing everything in their path, leading to the swift extinction of most complex life forms on the planet in a human-created holocaust.

“Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup,” they say.  We are poking at a fire-breathing dragon with a pointed stick, and he is waking up, and not at all happy about being poked.  We have yet to discover anywhere else in the Universe where beings like ourselves could exist, let alone where they do exist.  It would be a real shame to squander a possibly unique four and a half billion year-old experiment in evolution by a mere two-century tantrum of short-sightedness and self-indulgence, AKA the fossil fuel era.

I believe we can do better than that.  Thirty years ago, we lived with a nuclear sword over our heads, a sword that required a decision on someone’s part to inflict the damage it threatened.  Enough people cared enough  so that we have, for all intents and purposes, ended the danger of a nuclear holocaust. The climate sword that hangs over us now will fall not through a conscious decision, but through continued unconscious indecision.  There is still time to change our  minds, and our fate.

music:  Jefferson Airplane, “House at Pooneil Corners

Eliza Gilkyson, “2153



One response

13 10 2012

[…] I heard quite an earful from some of my readers and listeners about last month’s post “Meddling in the Affairs of Dragons.” […]

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