A spring heat wave shattered records across the US and Canada this month and some researchers worry it could be a symptom of sizzling summers and active hurricane seasons for the next few years. And that could be just the tip of the vanishing iceberg:
(NASA/Earth Observatory) — The unseasonable warmth broke temperature records in more than 1,054 locations between March 13–19, as well daily lows in 627 locations, according to Hamweather. Cities as geographically diverse as Chicago, Des Moines, Traverse City (Michigan), Myrtle Beach, Madison (Wisconsin), Atlantic City, New York City, and Duluth, (Minnesota) all broke records for high temperatures in recent days.
Anytime something like this happens people ask if its global warming. Climatologist Michael Mann put it like this earlier today, “I’m often getting asked ‘the crazy warmth this winter and spring, is it climate change or just weather’? The answer I tell them is that it’s both; weather is the random rolls of the dice. But global warming and climate change is loading the dice. And that’s part of why we’re rolling so many sixes lately.”
We could be rolling a lot of sixes in the next few years.
If you look at the NASA global temperature data above you might notice some of the valleys and upticks roughly coincide with the 11 year solar cycle. Some climate change deniers have made hay out of this, claiming the sun is solely responsible for the observed temperature increase over the last fifty years — something known to be false as solar weather and terrestrial irradiance are closely measured by legions of ground and space-based telescopes. The trend is up, but what I’m talking about here is it jumps, almost spiking, at least every decade or so. One reason, among many, for a few of those spikes might be the solar cycle alternately dampening and accelerating the longer term temperature increase forced by the accumulation of man-made greenhouses gases.
Why might the global spikes beat the solar peak? Intermittent events closer to home, volcanoes, large persistent cloud cover and snowfall or the absence of same, throws plenty of volatility into the real data. Why might it lag sometimes? Just as the hottest part of a sunny day happens in the afternoon when the sun has passed its high point and is heading west, the earth continues to absorb any slight increase in solar output after the cycle peaks and begins to wane. The result could be a quasi-decadel pattern super imposed over the short-term jigs and jags and long-term rise we see in the data. That sure sums up the NASA chart doesn’t it?
The last cycle peaked around 2001 – 2002 and could have been one factor in the events of 2004 and 2005, when NASA recorded very hot years and the western Atlantic experienced back to back record storm seasons. The next 12 months will see the sun very near or right at the most active phase of this cycle. If we extrapolate that forward, combined with greenhouse gas forcing, it could well mean a strong potential for record heat waves, record hot years, and record tropical cyclones over the next several years.
Bear in mind weather is complex to say the least, it’s the poster child for chaos theory. Just one example carefully epxlained to me by a climatologists when I was researching this: high pressure overone portion or another in the US during summer could keep the skies clear and thus usher in record heat, but if the system is big enough and lasts long enough, it can also help push large cyclones away from coasts. These pressure systems, and other phenomena like El Nino, can also directly create wind shear and alter jet streams which create more shear. Shear is when a layer of air is moving in one direction en masse at a specific altitude, but a different one just above or below, and it can greatly interfere with the dynamics at play in the heart of a tropical cyclone which need to build through thousands of vertical feet over several days to really get cranking (A smaller version of something like this may have happened last year with the drought and associated high pressure flowing out of Texas and Louisiana into the Gulf of Mexico). In some cases shear can even tear a cyclone apart after it has reached major hurricane status.
We can hope that dynamic will fend off cat 3 and higher cyclones from forming, or persisting, or help wave them away from making landfall, even if the planet and especially the northern hemisphere are struck with new record highs. But that’s not a sure thing, and even if it works to our benefit for a year or two, it’s just the luck of the draw.
Here’s what keeps some of climatologist friends awake at night: another round of record highs, back to back hottest years and record-breaking storm seasons, and the ocean-wind pattern which set up an unprecedented loss of Arctic ice a few yars ago, could deliver a one-two-three punch so severe it tips the climate, permanently, at least on the time scales of human civilization. A new quasi equilibrium could gel, where not only is every year and every storm season front-loaded to rival the meteorological drama we saw a few years ago, but new weather patterns set up, perpetual droughts in key farming regions, epidemic flooding in normally arid ones. The cryosphere, already under siege, could fare the worst: glaciers become dotted with moulins eating away their icy foundation, buoyed by liquid the ice break its surly bonds with earth and sections of glacier begin to act more like an ice-choked river. Over time this threatens the alpine water/ice reservoirs driving many of the world’s major rivers that serve billions of people. The Greenland ice sheets (And eventually those in Antarctica) pick up their pace, they begin to visibly slide into the sea, smashing delicate chemical and thermal balances between currents and salinity with a massive influx of cold fresh water on a global scale.
This is all speculation of course, at least as far as the single heat wave settling in over the US and Canada for the last few weeks. These weather events come and go every year. Even if we’re on the precipice of something new, it’s all connected, picking a starting point is an arbitrary exercise. But the next few years could turn out to be as good a time as any other. The Russian heat wave of 2010, this latest warm period in the US, and an increasingly active sun could mark the time when the climate tips and truly begins to run away toward the dire scenario many climatologists fear will plague us by mid-century – if we do not make significant changes now — and last for a millennia or more, no matter what we do. One would think, should any of this begin to come to pass, the climate change denial industry would finally concede.
Fat chance. It’s already begun to come to pass by any objective measure. But those clowns haven’t stopped and they aren’t going to as long as their paychecks clear; it’s their job, they aren’t research scientists, they’re PR execs behaving just like an advertising firm, only instead of being retained by Coca-cola to sell soda they’re funded by energy companies and wealthy tycoons focused on short-term earnings and stock bonuses. They’ll just look for new angles, new slogans, and if necessary, new political scapegoats. If the past and present are any guide, a run away climate too extreme to ignore would simply mark the point when the usual suspects execute a spine-snapping Mitt Romney level flip-flop from denying climate change to complaining they’ve tried warn the world about it for decades, but those damn stupid snobby liberals wouldn’t listen and now it’s too late — oh, and now we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by burning every drop of oil and every lump of coal we can.