Wake up and smell the climate change

I have lived in northeastern United States my entire life, so I have become pretty desensitized to what a powerful force snow can be. Living in the city for the past few years has made this even worse because I’m yet to see conditions that will stop a determined walker. But this year my eyes were pulled open to the double edged sword that is snow. On one side it is a tremendous force that can halt modern civilization in its tracks. Businesses shut down, traveling becomes near impossible, and the weak perish. On the other side it is truly beautiful and it took the ignorance of a girl from south China to make me realize how magnificent it can be to enjoy what I have taken granted for so long. I digress…

This winter has been unusually warm, with temperatures consistently staying near 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This is spring weather! Today as I write this, I was able to walk to class in a short sleeve shirt. This is a phenomenon that usually happens in the beginning of April, not the beginning of February. The times are changing … rather, the climate is changing. Blizzard Jonas was a warning sign. We won’t have to wait another 30 years to see the effects, we can see them today. If this is the beginning, I am worried as to what we will see in 30 years.

Climatologists are calling this year the warmest year on record. We have been seeing a steady increase of temperature across most areas and the droughts of California this year are further evidence of this.
I am all for not having to bundle up every day and walk to class in the blistering cold, but the warming temperature is concerning. If the temperatures were to reach relatively warm conditions sporadically, that would be fine and provide a nice respite from the cold. However, this year, we have had multiple weeks, even months, during “winter” where the temperature never dropped below freezing. Random variations in weather are expected, but the consistent shifting of the climate can have severe effects. Storm intensities rise, abundance of pests increase, and stress increases for regions through the lack of precipitation and added heat.

Blizzard Jonas that rocked the east coast in the end of January was a prime example of what we can expect to see more of in the future- large, high intensity storms.
It was estimated that the amount of snow over the two days during the blizzard was equal to the total snow accumulation from the entire last season. While this may not appear all that bad, we got lucky that the storm fell over the weekend. If Jonas would have made landfall during the week, the level of damages would have been much worse. The Schuylkill would have been a mess, car accidents/casualties would have skyrocketed, the city would have been all but shut down, but the bars would have stayed open.

Surely, this was just a freak occurrence and next year everything will be back to normal, right? I have my doubts and they’re grounded in science. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as the Environmental Protection Agency have both put out studies linking continued and increased emissions to the warming of the planet, namely the burning of fossil fuels.

NOAA estimates that in the last two years, the U.S. has had 25 climate and weather related disasters that claimed 1141 lives and together cost over $175 billion in damages. And according to the EPA just under 7,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide were released in 2013. This was a nine percent decrease from the 2005 levels. These levels combined with methane gas emissions are the biggest contributors to global warming, as they trap solar radiation in the atmosphere, trapping heat.

The North Atlantic Circulation system, and in particular the Gulf Stream, are oceanic currents that carry warm, nutrient rich waters north, and recycle the cold water back to the south. This system passes off of the east coast of North America, curves east at Greenland, and begins its return to the Caribbean near Western Europe. When uninterrupted, this circulation pattern warms Europe and maintains a stable ocean environment. Indeed, without this circulation pattern Europe would be covered in snow/ice (the U.K. sits at the same latitude as northern Canada!) and the Atlantic Ocean would not be as rich in life as it is. But as global warming continues, the glaciers from the Arctic and Greenland begin to melt, sending cold, dense water south, directly into the path of the Gulf Stream. At this point, this new cold water pushes a portion of the warm water from the Gulf Stream directly south. As this water makes its way south, it begins to link up with the normally existing Gulf Stream.

Furthermore, this warm water not only brings heat to the landmass but also adds additional fuel to any storm system that travels up the coast to eventually make landfall on the East Coast. As was the case with Blizzard Jonas, this usually typical storm system gained a tremendous amount of fuel that allowed it to dump the historic levels of precipitation that we witnessed. A similar situation happened in Texas and on the West Coast, when after months of drought a massive storm rolled in and flooded the region.

So what can we expect going forward? We can expect a higher frequency of large storms interrupted by periods of unseasonably warm weather. The good news is that with warmer weather on the horizon after these major storms, the snow/ice will melt more quickly. At the same time it puts an unusually high level of stress on the surrounding waterways that could leave lasting impacts to neighboring ecosystems and the city’s infrastructure.

But there is hope! This may not have to be the future that we live in. A reduction in greenhouse gases and the stabilization of the climate can insure that these large, freak storms happen less frequently and don’t destabilize regions.

The need to move away from a fossil fuel based system is urgent. The effects are being felt and will only get worse if we do nothing.

  • Biologyteacher100

    Excellent science-based letter. We also need to consider that sea level rise will greatly increase storm damage in coastal waters and will eventually force us to abandon the word’s coastal cities. Miami and New Orleans will probably be lost during the current century, but an increase in sea level of only 20 feet would destroy every major coastal city from New York to Shanghai. We need strong action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world.