Climate Swings – January? Or Is This March?
Photograph by Shankar Gopalkrishnan.
I have been intrigued by the idea of snow since I was a child. Most of us who grew up in warm climes look at incredible mountain scenes washed in white and make a silent wish to wake up one day to see fresh, fallen snow. I have been in New York for the past few months and was certain that the peak of winter would guarantee me the snow I always sought. The last snow-less December was way back in 1877. In the last four years, the snowfall in New York’s Central Park even set records averaging twice the normal annual accumulation.
Shockingly, the record high for Central Park in 1950, (17.20 C or 630 F) was actually broken on January 6, 2007, (21.10 C or 700 F). In place of sub-zero temperatures and driveways piled high with snow, the west coast of the U.S.A. is basking in spring-like weather. In Washington D.C., cherry blossoms emerged two months in advance. Witch hazel, grape holly and even a rose-coloured camellia are in full bloom at the New York Botanical Garden. At the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Japanese apricot tree is covered with hundreds of exquisite pink blossoms. There are reports of white-tailed deer dropping their antlers three weeks earlier than usual. Wildlife biologists in Montreal, Canada say that breeding patterns, sleeping habits and migration schedules are all affected. Raccoons and skunks are skipping their annual hibernation and Eastern grey squirrels can still be seen feeding. The Canada Geese that usually migrate from the Montreal area to southern climes are still hanging around. And ski resorts are being forced to use artificial snow.
It is like winter itself is hibernating and we are told that the year 2007 is going to be the warmest ever.
And the moot question – is it global warming? Some meteorologists say a moderate El Niño is the climatic culprit and that it has nothing to do with global warming. The El Niño’s periodic warm ocean currents, according to them, have affected worldwide weather patterns and created milder winter conditions on the east coast of the U.S. The currents have kept the cold air locked up in Canada and even turned America’s west coast stormy. The jet stream, a high altitude air current, trapped farther north than usual is also being touted by some as the reason for the climatic swings we are experiencing. In the words of some climatologists, the U.S. is experiencing warmer weather because ‘their’ normal Arctic air is “sitting over Europe”. Curiously, any unusual weather precipitates get immediate pronouncements from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dismissing global warming as the reason and this is then reflected in the media.
The administration seems to be in denial mode and scientists are pointing out that even though El Niño does favour anomalous warmth, the typical anomaly is about one degree centigrade. This year, the temperature rise is roughly five times that figure!
Americans have read articles, seen Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and even voted out the Republicans. But are they still ready to accept that climate change could be a reality? Do the majority even consider the possibility that climate change could be the cause of more frequent and intense El Niño events?
For years, scientists and environmentalists have talked about the doubling of atmospheric carbon and its impacts on polar ice, sea levels and threats to islands and coastal areas 50 to 100 years from now. Ordinary people, however, tend to ignore projections about impacts in the far future. But I suspect, things will soon change because the impacts of climate change are being experienced here now and it is affecting the daily lives of Americans.
Climate change is significantly affecting rainfall and temperature patterns. Higher temperatures, increased precipitation and increased nitrogen deposits in turn affect water levels, agriculture and fish harvests. Last month, a huge chunk of ice broke away from Ellesmere Island in Canada’s far north. Colorado in the U.S. is buried in snow and has experienced three blizzards due to moisture-laden air masses passing through the region. This is probably because warmer air tends to hold more moisture, which is then deposited as snow when the temperature falls below freezing point.
It is not just the U.S. that is battling unusual weather conditions. The higher than average temperatures are a global trend. A large portion of the Northern Hemisphere has been warmer than normal. In Britain, the temperature for December was three degrees centigrade above the long-term average. In the Southern Hemisphere, unrelenting drought in southeast Queensland, Australia has triggered a water crisis in many suburbans towns. It’s like no one can take anything for granted anymore.
Though temperatures are predicted to drop in the coming days, a major part of winter has really passed us by. And for all the technological advances, even the most developed countries are dependent on the predictability of climate. When plants flower in winter, then that predictability is lost… and that is the greatest threat of global warming and the resulting climate change.
One swallow does not a summer make, and one winter cannot justify our passing absolute judgment on climate change. But this is no longer a one-year assessment. Human-induced climate change is closely linked to the sheer volume of carbon dioxide our lifestyles are causing to be released into the atmosphere. Of this, there is now no doubt. So what do we do? Wait for the Bald Eagle to vanish before we try to save it? Wait for global warming-related floods to drown our homes before we begin to act? Or work on changing things for the better before it is too late?
Very reluctantly, some tentative steps are beginning to be taken by the United States, by far the most serious contributor to carbon-related climate change. The McCain-Lieberman Climate Change Legislation was introduced by the Congress on January 12, 2007 but still falls short on target reductions and also predictably includes subsidies for nuclear energy. Of course, the U.S. still refuses to sign any international climate change treaties and taking their cue from the U.S., Australia too refuses to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. According to the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, the World Bank, which was petitioned in 1992 by the Rio Earth Summit to promote sustainable energy development, instead spent $28 billion on fossil fuel projects. This is 17 times the amount they spent on renewable energy.
After Hurricane Katrina, climate change was on the minds of all thinking Americans. This mild winter, no matter what reasons are trotted out by the Bush Administration, is forcing people to wonder whether climate change can really be ignored much longer without serious harm to human health and the economy. No country can abdicate its responsibility and watch from the sidelines as the world plunges towards an ecological catastrophe. Young persons know this. They want world leaders to work together to increase the total area protected as wildernesses, away from human use. They know this is the best way to sequester carbon and they want humanity to move towards efficient, sustainable, energy-efficient options.
The U.S., as a global superpower, could exercise positive leadership for a global transition from ecosystem and resource destruction to energy independence and climate stability. We managed to identify and tackle the problem of the ozone hole by working as a global collective. The solutions for climate change await similar, global action. Now!
by Lakshmy Raman, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVII No. 1 February 2007.