Swans Commentary » swans.com May 22, 2006  



Climate: Weather Compounded


by Milo Clark





(Swans - May 22, 2006)   Weather is what goes on outside my windows. Collect together everybody's weather and you have climate.

From the chaotic dynamics of nonlinear processes in constant interaction, we get weather in microcosm and climate in macrocosm. This is a significant sentence.

The old saw: "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute, it'll change," is like weather itself. It compounds into the only constant of climate, which is change.

Right now and for years now, weather and climate have been dumped into some overly simplistic baskets. We hear about global warming a lot. We hear about global cooling hardly at all. Global dimming gets a blank look and a questioning grimace. Abrupt climate change? Duhhh!

Over the millennia, climates have changed constantly. When too much carbon dioxide accumulates, we have warming as the clouds thicken and warmth is held closer to earth longer; that is, not reflected back into the sky. When natural cycles of solar activities slacken, insolation reduced, we have global dimming. Dimming serves to cool things. Too much cloudiness also can result in less insolation. Warm too much and we get hot windy deserts. Cool too much and we get ice ages. Neither is comfortable for people, animals, or vegetation as we know them.

Warming and dimming tend to be handmaidens. Desert against ice. Maybe it would make a better image to imagine a tug of war. Yet, however we imagine these two going back and forth, both are utterly simplistic and essentially useless; except, of course, in political debates.

Another much maligned and little understood factor in climate is pace: timing of and intensity of changes. A prevalent assumption is that climate changes at very slow rates. Nevertheless, extensive study reveals that change is more likely to be abrupt than gradual.

Yet another major variable is human interaction. Our carbon dioxide emissions add to and compound warming. At the same time, our contributions to dimming, from excess pollutants in the air to airplane contrails, push against warming. Do we have a standoff? Human interventions, in whatever form, have impacts.

What those impacts may be and what remedies are suggested fuel the political debates now raging. By focusing on warming to the exclusion of other major variables, we get a skew of denial ranging up to and including the Bush White House chuckle-up with author Creighton.

Will dimming offset carbon dioxide and pollutant contaminations? Does denial or ignorance of massive evidence for abrupt climate change further mess up understanding, much less action planning?

Abrupt climate change is more likely than the gradual patterning assumed in conventional thinking. Add in other variables such as ocean behavior and currents, wind patterning, orbital dynamics and so on and so forth to get a strong wake-up call. Both El Niño and La Niña are calling for attention.

Short hand: in terms of climate, this whole world is squarely on top of overdue fault line. Clearly, the overbearing question remains "when?" rather than "if?".

Take away the politics and denial of scientific consensus governing the Bush White House and what do we know? Major investigators insist that climate change is a problem for which denial is near suicidal. Given abrupt climate change as a stronger probability than gradual evolutions, warnings assume a greater degree of urgency.

Changes recorded in ice core and sediment samplings worldwide define abrupt as short as a year and as long as decades, if not centuries. Consensus now seems toward the shorter time expectations.

Collections of weather data and advances in paleoclimatology (the study of ancient weather patterns) are relatively recent in terms of geological time. Lest we are lulled into complacency and pointed toward denial by the relative tranquility of the last 150 years, paleoclimatologists have now established previous instances of climate change happening within a couple of years, less than a decade, even one year.

Without the impact of human interventions, accumulations of carbon dioxide invariably lead to warming. Without the impact of human interventions, dimming invariably leads to cooling and ice ages. Switches in oceanic current patterns involving direction, intensity, and temperature variations at depths tend to compound the cycles sharply.

At the moment, given present indications, trends point more sharply to ice age than to hot, windy desert conditions; going through excess warming to excess cooling rather abruptly. Shall we count our blessings? Ice ages contract numbers of people and animals, shrink species of plants that survive conditions, yet there are survivors. Drought and desertification are more damaging to humans, animals, and plants, suggesting fewer survivors and longer impact.

History records entire civilizations disappearing. Aztec, Anasazi, Mayan, and Inca disappearances are well known. The paleogeologic records show many more.

The only recent North American incidence of prolonged drought was in the American Midwest's "Dust Bowl" during the 1930s. We ignore and deny that the Sahara of northern Africa was once verdant and lush. Ice and sediment cores reveal many periods of severe drought lasting as long as centuries.

What can we conclude? Human interventions are compounding weather patterns, hence climate change. Whatever may be driving more hurricanes, wetter and dryer periods, stronger El Niño and La Niña patterns, shifts in ocean variables, etc.; gathered together suggest acceleration rather than slowing down of climate change probabilities.

May leadership emerge willing to confront climate variables in present time. May leadership emerge, period. Prominent scientists reckon that we may have a little as a decade within which to begin strong positive actions recognizing the high probabilities involved. We need to back off on human interventions impacting all variables to reduce, not necessarily postpone, impacts of climatic shifts.

Can we choose among flood, ice, or starvation?

"Not on my watch," appears to be the prevailing political reaction, at least in the once United States of America. George W. Bush may ultimately reside in history as the president who ignored climate change.

To belabor the obvious, history would have to rank order a massive list of Bush fiascos to single out this conclusion.


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About the Author

Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).



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Published May 22, 2006