by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Mark February 12, 2010, on your calendar as the first day since records started being kept on which there was snow on the ground in every state except Hawaii. Meteorologists are coming combing 43 years of weather history to be sure that’s the case, but so far no one has come up with another such date. Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano might have made it 50 states, but there was no snow to be seen, not even at its 13,800 foot peak.
Weather forecasters say the unusual snow pattern doesn’t prove – or disprove – global warming (a term about which I’ll have more to say in a moment.) They blame Washington’s crippling snow storms on El Niño, the recurring weather pattern that sometimes pumps moisture across the country’s midsection. That’s interesting. A few years ago, when we in Western Massachusetts had 70 inches of snowfall one winter and 62 the next, the same air current got the blame for our aching backs and bent-out-of-shape snow shovels.
It’s a time-honored practice to blame the one who’s not around to defend himself. So let’s blame that poor little Spanish boy (that’s what el niño means) whom no one can see nor chastise for inconsiderate behavior.
Around here, in rural Massachusetts, huge snowfalls are a nuisance, but we have the know-how and equipment to handle them, and space to push the snow out of the way. It’s no surprise, though, that Washington virtually shut down for days on end. Cities are different. When I left Philadelphia, my home town, more than 40 years ago, the city was stopped cold (so to speak) by a four-inch snowfall. I imagine they’ve bought a few more plows since then, but still…
While Washington shut down, though, certain mouths that should have did not. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Congress’s climate change denier-in-chief, got his daughter, her husband, and their children to build a six-foot igloo at the U.S. Capitol. They stuck a sign on its top calling it Al Gore’s new home. Funny? Only if you don’t understand the implications of Earth’s average temperature threatening to climb to the point where Earth ceases to be a suitable habitat for homo so-called sapiens. A cheap shot? Stupid? You betcha.
It’s both a cheap shot at Gore, who has dedicated his life to spreading the word about what’s happening to Earth’s climate, and stupid to cite unusually heavy snow in unusual places as proof that the globe is not warming. The undeniable fact is that Earth’s temperature is rising. The Sustainability Institute gave a slide presentation at Smith College and Harvard Divinity School that has a slide I wish I could show you. (I’ll tell you about it, instead.) If you want to see it, click here and choose Climate Leadership Workshop (warning – it’s a huge PDF file, not suitable for dial-up connections), then look at slide #7. The whole presentation is worth looking at, but I’m not a great fan of slides without a voice to amplify what I see.
Slide 7 is an eye-opener. It says that for the past 10,000 years the average Earth temperature has been 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit – I’ll use Fahrenheit from here on.) At times the average temperature has ranged between one-third of a degree (in Celsius) higher and one-half a degree lower – in other words, Earth’s average temperature has been between 58.1 and 59.5 degrees F.
At the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, the average temperature was 51.8 F.. Now – today – we are at the top of the temperature range known to support human life. We’ve never seen a higher average temperature, so we don’t know what the upper limit is. Climate scientists are predicting that one hundred years from now, if atmospheric conditions don’t improve, Earth’s average temperature will be 66.2 F.
Nobody knows if human life can survive in that climate. Nobody old enough to read this is likely to be around then to find out. We’re leaving it to our descendants, three generations hence or more, to discover the ultimate effect of global weirding.
It’s because of numbskulls like the family Inhofe that I’m not ever again going to use the term “global warming.” Snow notwithstanding, the globe is warming. But the deniers – who may be in true denial, or in league with corporate interests whose profits may lag if they invest in technology to reduce the emissions that are raising the temperature – argue that the earth’s temperature cannot be going up if we’re getting all this snow in unlikely places such as Mississippi and Florida.
They’re wrong. If they paid attention in elementary school science class at all, they must have been absent on the day their teacher explained the water cycle: sun makes water evaporate; evaporated water forms clouds; clouds get over-full of water and start dropping it back to Earth, in the form of rain if it’s warm enough, snow if not. More heat -> more evaporation -> more saturated clouds -> more rain. Or snow.
Most of the warming is taking place at the poles, because they are most vulnerable to the lack of insulation that greenhouse gases have caused. If you don’t believe that, just ask a polar bear, or an indigenous Alaskan whose habitat is disappearing. Higher temperatures at the poles mean lower temperatures away from the poles. Overall, the Earth’s average temperature is climbing, but that doesn’t mean it’s climbing at the same rate everywhere. And it doesn’t negate the fact that snow, more than three feet of it, fell last week in our nation’s capital.
I wonder when the cherry blossoms will come out this year.
So if you have to use the word “global” in talking about what on Earth is happening, follow it by “weirding,” not by “warming.” Weird means out of the ordinary, unusual, strange, not normal. All of those things are true about what’s going on, what we won’t have to deal with at the most fundamental level, but our descendants will.
I didn’t make up the term; it seems to have been introduced by my former colleague and newspaper competitor, Ann Raver, in a 2002 New York Times article. She wrote, “If you can’t exactly point to the climate changes as evidence of global warming, perhaps you can call it global weirding.” That was eight years ago. Now we can point to climate changes as evidence of global warming. That’s how quickly things have happened. But there’s no need to give the nation’s numbskulls a way to sow confusion and make it easy for Congress to sell us out, by calling it warming. Wierding will do.
Legislation is pending in Congress that is meant to address the problem. We need to keep track of it, and in some cases to give spine transplants to our senators and representatives. I’ll keep you posted.
For more on this pressing matter – long term, the most important issue we have to deal with – see my 2009 Blog Action Day post.