Rising temperatures aren’t the only reason the weather’s getting weird

Because their movement is largely founded on greed and lies, anti-environmentalists have a different relationship with the truth than most normal people. They’ll use arguments based on how much traction they get, rather than trivialities such as factual accuracy. Skeptical Science maintains this delightful list of the lies that climate deniers favor, and that represent the one circumstance in which they really seem to care about recycling.  If an argument stops working, they shelve it for a little while, and then start using it again when other arguments stop working. This is something they have in common with all reactionary movements, from what I can tell. Longtime readers of Freethought Blogs are certainly aware of how the various flavors of religious fundamentalist will bring up arguments that were debunked literal centuries ago. Their philosophical framework does not value honesty or factual accuracy, it values dominance of “us”. These days, my favorite quote on this phenomenon is Jean-Paul Sarte’s discussion of anti-Semites:

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

I recently objected to a commenter’s view that we should apply humanism as a blanket philosophy, rather than putting in the effort to pick apart the differences in circumstance that occur around the world. This is one area where that approach is useful – when dealing with reactionaries, remember that they don’t “believe in words” or in truth, at least in the way that we do.

All of this is to preface the fact that in the last few weeks I’ve seen people talking about the 20th century scare about atmospheric ozone depletion. For those who need a refresher, a class of chemicals called CFCs, used in refrigeration and various other things, was causing the stratospheric ozone layer to thin, particularly over Antarctica. The ozone layer is our primary protection against solar radiation. The thinner it gets, the faster we burn, and the faster we get cancer. The fact that we were creating a hole in it got a lot of attention, and with a great deal of effort, bans on CFCs were put in place around the world, and by the early 2000s, the ozone layer had moved from depletion to recovery. It’s considered one of the major successes in environmental policy driven by scientific warnings.

And there’s a sizable group of people who believe that because the problem “went away”, that means that it was a false alarm. In 2022, I have seen people sincerely argue that the ozone crisis shows why we don’t need to pay attention to climate scientists. To paraphrase Sartre, never believe that they are completely unaware of the absurdity of their arguments.

Unfortunately, we do need to worry about the ozone layer. The successes made with CFCs made a real difference, and there’s value in taking credit for and celebrating our victories. They also took place in the context of the same global capitalist regime that seems Hell-bent on our extinction, so it should not surprise you to know that ozone depletion is still a problem. Once again, our society’s obsession with declaring problems to be solved has distracted people from the causes of those problems, and the ways in which the solutions are either inadequate or entirely illusory. Tegan reminded me to mention here that this isn’t a universal problem Australia, being pretty close to the Antarctic ozone hole, has done a better job of keeping the issue in the public consciousness.

Know how the weather’s been strange lately? That’s not just because of the rise in temperature:

Whether there is a causal relationship between stratospheric ozone destruction and the observed weather anomalies is a matter of debate in climate research. The polar vortex in the stratosphere, which forms in winter and decays in spring, also plays a role. Scientists who have studied the phenomenon so far have arrived at contradictory results and different conclusions.

New findings are now shedding light on the situation, thanks to doctoral student Marina Friedel and Swiss National Science Foundation Ambizione Fellow Gabriel Chiodo. Both are members of the group headed by Thomas Peter, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at ETH Zurich, and are collaborating with Princeton University and other institutions.
Simulations reveal correlation

To uncover a possible causal relationship, the researchers ran simulations that integrated ozone depletion into two different climate models. Most climate models consider only physical factors, not variations in stratospheric ozone levels, in part because this would require much more computing power.

But the new calculations make it clear: the cause of the weather anomalies observed in the northern hemisphere in 2011 and 2020 is mostly ozone depletion over the Arctic. The simulations the researchers ran with the two models largely coincided with observational data from those two years, as well as eight other such events that were used for comparison purposes. However, when the scientists “turned off” ozone destruction in the models, they could not reproduce those results.

If this research bears out, that’s both concerning, and extremely useful to know. I’ve been aware for a while that the ozone depletion problem didn’t really go away, but I admit that my focus was mostly on the direct harm of increasing our exposure to solar radiation. It hadn’t occurred to me to look into how more radiation reaching the lower atmosphere and the planet’s surface might affect the weather. It also hadn’t occurred to me to remember that more radiation reaching the lower atmosphere means less radiation in the upper atmosphere.

The phenomenon as the researchers have now studied it begins with ozone depletion in the stratosphere. For ozone to be broken down there, temperatures in the Arctic must be very low. “Ozone destruction occurs only when it is cold enough and the polar vortex is strong in the stratosphere, about 30 to 50 kilometres above the ground,” Friedel points out.

Normally, ozone absorbs UV radiation emitted by the sun, thereby warming the stratosphere and helping to break down the polar vortex in spring. But if there is less ozone, the stratosphere cools and the vortex becomes stronger. “A strong polar vortex then produces the effects observed at the Earth’s surface,” Chiodo says. Ozone thus plays a major role in temperature and circulation changes around the North Pole.

Again, this makes sense to me. I also find it interesting because stratospheric cooling driven by ozone depletion comes on top of stratospheric cooling driven by greenhouse gas increases. It’s not just that the planet’s heating, that heat is also being concentrated lower in the atmosphere. In 2020 – one of the years whose weird weather is attributed to Arctic ozone depletion – I posted about how the momentum of global warming means that a hot year matters more than a cold one. I’m now wondering whether we do need to be paying more attention to atmospheric cooling, specifically in the outer layer of the atmosphere. Well, I say “we”, but it’s pretty clear that climate scientists are studying that, and have been all along. The nice thing about humanity as a “collective” is that through specialization of interest and skill, we can be reasonably certain that given the resources, someone’s going to be passionate and knowledgeable about pretty much any problem that affects us. That’s a good thing, and this news is not entirely bad.

The new findings could help climate researchers make more accurate seasonal weather and climate forecasts in future. This allows for better prediction of heat and temperature changes, “which is important for agriculture,” Chiodo says.

Friedel adds, “It will be interesting to observe and model the future evolution of the ozone layer.” This is because ozone depletion continues, even though ozone-​depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have been banned since 1989. CFCs are very long-​lived and linger in the atmosphere for 50 to 100 years; their potential to cause ozone destruction lasts for decades after they have been taken out of circulation. “Yet CFC concentrations are steadily declining, and this raises the question of how quickly the ozone layer is recovering and how this will affect the climate system,” she says.

The work that was done on safeguarding our ozone layer was important, and we are all better off because of it. You can still rub that in the faces of any troll who’s spouting obvious bullshit about it, but it’s also worth mentioning that the problem hasn’t gone away, it’s just that in most of the English-speaking world, it has faded from public consciousness. The work that was done was important, but, we’ve got plenty still to do.

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  1. Bruce says

    After the Japanese bombed Hawaii in 1941, the US increased our defenses. Obviously this was a false alarm, and NORAD and all US radar detection should be dismantled because peace proved defense was a waste. So now we can cut taxes in half and add in every AOC program. Thanks, Republicans.

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