January 18, 2014

Saturday Morning Bummer: Climate 2.0

Brought to you by a cup of bitter gall Peet's French Roast coffee...

Paul Beckwith, the University of Ottawa physicist, chess master, and climate scientist, has taken the time to expatiate on the New Normal Weather and its causes, so I thought I would pass along his analysis.  I first became aware of the "wavy jet stream" and its connection to the breakdown in the temperature gradient between the Arctic and the Equator through Paul's work.  The jet stream, which used to flow west to east above America with regular seasonal variations (higher in the summer, lower in the winter) has now been "perturbed" by Arctic amplification (the observed tendency for the Arctic to heat up 3 to 4 times faster than the land masses of North America because of a loss of its albedo, or sun-reflecting capacity); or, in the parlance of our time, fucked up beyond all recognition.

The consequences are beginning to show up on a pretty regular basis.  Paul predicts another Arctic "excursion" for next week, which will bring polar temperatures down to the Midwest and Eastern seaboard of the U.S. as far south as northern Florida.  Meanwhile, California remains in an unprecedented drought.  As one example, during calendar year 2013, Marin County's official measuring station recorded 10.21 inches for the entire year; this is one-half of the amount which fell during the previous all-time recorded low, in the epic drought of 1976. The assumption, always, is that normal cycles will return and replenish the local reservoirs.  On a larger scale, the entire state of California and its 38 million people operate on the same principle.  Here's a disturbing question: what if that "principle" no longer applies?  Mr. Beckwith says it does not.  There may be monster deluges from time to time ("atmospheric river storms"), but that sweet November to April moderate rainfall which I grew up with in California, just adequate for our needs, may be a thing of the past.  Then what?

American Baby Boomers, liberal and conservative alike, came of age under the influence of Positive Thinking Woo-Woo, which pathologizes negative thought processes.  This mind-set is not especially helpful under the circumstances; better to take to heart Mose Allison's sentiment that he don't worry about a thing cause he knows nothin's gonna turn out right.

Take it away, Paul:


The familiar global weather patterns that we, our parents, and our grandparents (and most of our distant ancestors, at least as far back as the last ice age remnants) have always experienced are no more. We have entered an abrupt climate change phase in which an energized water-primed atmosphere and disrupted circulation patterns give rise to unfamiliar, massive and powerfully destructive storms, torrential rains, widespread heat waves and droughts, and less commonly but occasionally widespread cold spells. 

Why is this happening now? Sophisticated Earth System computer Models (ESMs), summaries of state-of-the-art peer reviewed climate science (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC), and mainstream science have generally put the climate change threat out to the latter part of the century. Global data from all parts of the world, but most noticeably the Arctic shows that reality is quite different from these models and mainstream thinking.

Just by looking out the window much of humanity now senses that something is very different, and uncomfortably wrong in their particular region.

Depending on location, vegetation is drying out and burning, or being toppled by very high wind events, or oceans are invading upon coastlines, or rivers are overrunning banks or drying up or both, while rainfall deluges are inundating other regions. In fact some regions are vacillating between massive floods and massive droughts, or record high temperatures and record low temperatures, even on a weekly basis. 

As crazy as things are now, clearly they are not bad enough to wake up the general population enough to vote down denier politicians and demand extensive governmental action on the problem. Not to worry, that action is a sure bet in the near future, the only question is will it happen next year, or in 3 years? 

In the meantime, many of us are doing as much as we can to educate people on the dangers we face and speed up the understanding of climate reality process. As much as we do, ultimately it is the hammer of extreme weather, causing, for example global crop failures or taking out a few more cities in rich countries that will take the final credit for an abrupt tipping point in human behavior.
The key to the disruption in the climate system is the Arctic.
Human emissions have inexorably increased levels of carbon dioxide and methane (Greenhouse gases GHGs) in the atmosphere sufficiently to cause an incremental overall increase of global mean surface temperature by 0.8 degrees C over the last century. Over the last 3 decades, the GHGs have caused sufficient warming in the Arctic to melt enough land-covered snow and ocean covered ice such that the highly reflective surfaces have been replaced by dark underlying land and ocean greatly increasing sunlight absorption causing Arctic temperature amplification of 3x to 5x and higher.
This has melted permafrost on the land and on the shallow continental shelves and has increased Arctic methane emissions, which on a molecule-to-molecule basis cause warming >150x compared to carbon dioxide on a short timescale. Arctic temperature amplification has reduced the equator-to-Arctic temperature difference, which is responsible for setting up global circulation patterns on the rotating Earth. Thus, the high speed jet stream winds which circumvent the globe become slower, and wavier, and weather patterns change. 

Extreme weather events become stronger, more frequent, of longer duration, and act on new regions. In effect, the climate background has changed, so the statistics of all weather events changes. When the ocean tide comes in all boats rise, when the climate system changes all weather events change.
So how does the North American freeze of early January, 2014 and the upcoming late January, 2014 freeze fit into this picture? In our familiar climate, the polar jet stream flowed mostly west to east (with small north-south deviations or waves, with typically 4 to 7 crests and troughs around the globe) separating cold dry Arctic air from lower latitude warmer moist air. The latitude of the jet moves southward in our winter and northward in our summer. 

In our present climate the jet stream waviness has greatly increased and eastward average speed has decreased. Not only that, but in early January there were only two troughs (over North America and central Asia) and two crests (over Europe and the Pacific up through Alaska and the Bering Strait).
The troughs had temperatures 20 degrees C cooler than normal, while the crests had temperatures 20 degrees C warmer than normal. These large waves and slowing of the jet stream are directly responsible for the changes we have been experiencing in weather extremes,  Cold or warm, depending on your location.

January 12, 2014

The Light Carbon Footprint of the Dude, Concluded

The possibility exists, of course, that the Coen Brothers were making a movie about a stoned slacker living in the Venice Beach area around 1991, based on a guy they knew, and that's all there is to it. In point of fact, it's a pretty silly movie on some levels.  The film has inspired a superstructure of analysis and exegesis that the frail and dubious plot can barely support.  On the other hand, "Casablanca" has a plot even more flimsy, premised on "Letters of Transit" that have no basis in historical fact.  So plot devices never settle the matter.  The philosophical weight that a movie carries is always based on something more nebulous and elusive.

The "action," such as it is, takes place over the span of a few days.  The Dude goes from a guy with a rug that really tied the room together to a guy with no rug to tie the room together.  The various bounties he is promised for delivering ransom, or recovering money, by The Big Lebowski, Maude Lebowski and Jacky Treehorn, come to nothing.  The Dude never makes a dime.  He loses his old beater. He loses a friend, Donny, although he only directs five words to Donny during the course of the movie: "Home, Donny."  "Thank you, Donny."  He sires a child.  He never bowls a single ball during the film.

The plot does not matter because the movie is really about a general feeling, an approach to life, and the contrived tale is only a vehicle for elucidating that. The Coen Brothers were capitalizing on something else that The Stranger alludes to in his closing summation.  That we all feel a little bit better "knowin' the Dude is out there takin' 'er easy for the rest of us sinners."  That the Dude abides. 

At one point at the bowling alley, Walter Sobchak cries, "Has the whole world gone crazy?"  The answer, as we all know, is yes.  The world is completely insane.  Friedrich Nietzsche (a guy Walter probably quoted by the wholesale yard at regular intervals), made the point eloquently:  "Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule."  The social dynamics that bring this reality about are obscure, but we know nonetheless that it is true.  The world is crazy.  The progress of modernity has brought us to the edge of the abyss. One of the two main topics of the Port Huron Statement, after all, was the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation.  What could be more insane than a species that works diligently to ensure its own extinction?

Sometimes I think it is reasonable to ascertain the intentions of an artist by speculations on the unconscious influences on the auteur or creator.  If I think about "The Big Lebowski" this way, I find it significant that in the opening scene in Ralph's, President George H.W. Bush is asserting that the aggression of Saddam against Kuwait "will not stand," a phrase which the Dude will pick up and use elsewhere (the Dude has a malleable quality that makes him prone to imitation, such as copying Maude's "parlance of our time" later in the movie).  Yet what was Operation Desert Storm really about?  Assuring Western access to Kuwaiti oil.  George H.W. Bush had the candor to say so explicitly, in fact.  Thus, the purpose of this war was solely to enable the United States to continue exploiting the very resource which had made Los Angeles into a dystopian nightmare of traffic jams and pollution.  And, as we know so well now, has brought us to the edge of runaway climate change, threatening the greatest die-off of species since the Permian Mass Extinction.  This is social madness on an epic scale.

Sometimes there's a man who sees this insanity and checks out in every way he can.  I'm talkin' about the Dude here, the guy who fits right in there for his time. Whose laziness, whose refusal to contribute to or be a part of the Rube Goldberg contraptions of death and destruction of modern civilization can be seen as heroic. ("'Cause what's a hero?" the Stranger asks). As acts of rebellion and self-definition, as Albert Camus employed those terms.  The Dude rebelled actively as a youth and came to terms with the futility of resistance.  Modernity rolled on, grinding all in its path, until wars were fought, national treasure thrown away, in order to ensure the continuation of a wacko mode of life.  So that what was left to the Dude was the oblivion of altered consciousness, of long soaks in the tub to the music of the humpback whale, to the soundtracks of Creedence and the bowling league finals. 

Who's to say what the movie's about?  It's a complex case, Maude, a lot of ins and outs, a lot of what-have-yous.  But maybe the Dude was saying that not just The Big Lebowski but people in general were human paraquat:  buzzkilling, toxic, materialistic and crazy.  The Dude Abides in this world, but not of this world, and that is his final triumph.