The media is talking about the weird weather we've been having, but they tend to ignore the elephant in the room. Take this story from NPR:
News cameras dutifully trained their eyes yesterday on the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. He saw his shadow, meaning six more weeks of winter. But this year, for much of the country, that's great news. January was one of the least snowy on record with more than 90 percent of the U.S., some would say, enjoying below-average snow cover. One theory for why? A phenomenon called arctic oscillation.
Obviously, strong tropical disturbances capable of developing into named storms are very rare in February, and I've never seen one in my 30 years as a meteorologist. However, ocean temperatures are warm enough year-round to support a tropical storm in the waters of the Western Caribbean. Water temperatures today in the region were 26 - 26.5°C (79 - 80°F), which is near average for this time of year. If an unusual configuration of the jet stream allows wind shear to drop below about 25 knots in the Western Caribbean, there is the opportunity for a rare off-season tropical storm to form in February. I discussed in an appearance on NPR's All Things Considered on Friday just how unusual the atmospheric flow patterns have been this winter, and today's rare tropical disturbance over South Florida is symptomatic of how whacked-out our 2012 atmosphere has been. In isolation, the strange winter weather of 2011 - 2012 could be a natural rare occurrence, but there have been way too many strange atmospheric events in the past two years for them all to be simply an unusually long run of natural extremes. Something is definitely up with the weather, and it is clear to me that over the past two years, the climate has shifted to a new state capable of delivering rare and unprecedented weather events. Human emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide are the most likely cause of such a shift in the climate, as I discussed in my post last week, Where is the climate headed?
We all have experienced it, but this is expert confirmation of that experience.
Let's look at a few recent examples of what he's talking about, courtesy of Desdemona.
Droughts are deceptive disasters: they knock down no buildings, spread no debris. But they are disasters nonetheless. The Texas drought that started more than a year ago has cost ranchers and farmers billions of dollars in lost income or additional expenses. It has forced hundreds of towns and cities to restrict water use and has turned lakes into ponds. Last year was the driest in Texas since 1917, with a total statewide rainfall of 15 inches, much lower than the average of 27.64 inches, according to John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist.
The Spicewood Beach well is one of 13 public water systems in the state that are projected to run out of water in 180 days or less and that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is tracking. Officials who oversee many of those systems are taking steps to increase their water supply, including digging new or deeper wells. One water system that serves about 1,500 people in Limestone County near Waco is estimated to run out of water on March 1.
Australia's flood crisis deepened Saturday with the weather bureau warning of a possible catastrophe in one region, as authorities continued to search for a woman swept away by the deluge.
Heavy rainfall in the eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland have cut off thousands of people, swamping farmland and homes, and prompting rescues from surging floodwaters.
For visitors expecting to see China's largest freshwater lake, Poyang is a desolate spectacle. Under normal circumstances it covers 3,500 sq km, but last month only 200 sq km were underwater. A dried-out plain stretches as far as the eye can see, leaving a pagoda perched on top of a hillock that is usually a little island. Wrapped in the mist characteristic of the lower reaches of the Yangtze river, the barges are moored close to the quayside beside a pitiful trickle of water. There is no work for the fisheries.
According to the state news agency Xinhua, the drought – the worst for 60 years – is due to the lack of rainfall in the area round Poyang and its tributaries. Poor weather conditions this year are partly responsible. But putting the blame on them overlooks the role played by the colossal Three Gorges reservoir, 500km upstream. The cause and effect is still not officially recognised, even if the government did admit last May that the planet's biggest dam had given rise to "problems that need to be solved very urgently".
And finally one that's telling---Despite Denial, Even Oil Companies Are Planning for Inevitable Climate Change:
Utilities, the oil and gas industry, agricultural companies and insurers are building assumptions about rising temperatures and extreme weather events into their scenario planning. This is what's being called climate adaptation or climate preparedness. The payoff from investing in adaptation could be substantial. In 2011, insured losses in the U.S. from natural catastrophes, including tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, topped $105 billion, breaking the record of $101 billion set in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina, according to Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance firm. Some of those losses had nothing to do with climate change, but others did.
I have to admit: it was unsettling to read Jeff Masters write that he thinks the climate has shifted to a new state. It's one thing to know that it's possible for such a shift to occur---and it's been long forecasted---but it's another thing to realize that the shift may have occurred already (perhaps the first of many such shifts in the coming years) and we're seeing the beginning of life on "Eaarth" as Bill McKibben puts it.
Our recent unusual weather has made me think about this a lot. The natural weather rhythms I've grown to used to during my 30 years as a meteorologist have become significantly disrupted over the past few years. Many of Earth's major atmospheric circulation patterns have seen significant shifts and unprecedented behavior; new patterns that were unknown have emerged, and extreme weather events were incredibly intense and numerous during 2010 - 2011. It boggles my mind that in 2011, the U.S. saw 14 - 17 billion-dollar weather disasters, three of which matched or exceeded some of the most iconic and destructive weather events in U.S. history--the "Super" tornado outbreak of 1974, the Dust Bowl summer of 1936, and the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. I appeared on PBS News Hour on December 28 (video here) to argue that watching the weather over the past two years has been like watching a famous baseball hitter on steroids--an analogy used in the past by climate scientists Tony Broccoli and Jerry Meehl. We're used to seeing the slugger hit the ball out of the park, but not with the frequency he's hitting them now that he's on steroids. Moreover, some of the home runs now land way back in the seats where no one has ever been able to hit a home run before. We can't say that any particular home run would not have occurred without the steroids, but the increase in home runs and the unprecedented ultra-long balls are highly suspicious. Similarly, Earth's 0.6°C (1°F) warming and 4% increase in global water vapor since 1970 have created an atmosphere on steroids. A warmer atmosphere has more energy to power stronger storms, hotter heat waves, more intense droughts, and heavier flooding rains. Natural weather patterns could have caused some of the extreme events we witnessed during 2010 - 2011, and these years likely would have been naturally extreme years even without climate change. But it strains the bounds of credulity that all of the extreme weather events--some of them 1-in-1000-year type events--could have occurred without a signicant change to the base climate state. Mother Nature is now able to hit the ball out of the park more often, and with much more power, thanks to the extra energy global warming has put into the atmosphere.
Extreme weather years like 2010 and 2011 are very likely to increase in frequency, since there is a delay of several decades between when we put heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and when the climate fully responds. This is because Earth's oceans take so long to heat up when extra heat is added to the atmosphere (think about how long it takes it takes for a lake to heat up during summer.) Due to this lag, we are just now experiencing the full effect of CO2 emitted by the late 1980s; since CO2 has been increasing by 1 - 3% per year since then, there is a lot more climate change "in the pipeline" we cannot avoid. We've set in motion a dangerous boulder of climate change that is rolling downhill, and it is too late to avoid major damage when it hits full-force several decades from now. However, we can reduce the ultimate severity of the damage with strong and rapid action. A boulder rolling downhill can be deflected in its path more readily early in its course, before it gains too much momentum in its downward rush. For example, the International Energy Agency estimates that every dollar we invest in alternative energy before 2020 will save $4.30 later. There are many talented and dedicated people working very hard to deflect the downhill-rolling boulder of climate change--but they need a lot more help very soon.