February 08, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Surf's Up In England

Brought to you by Peet's store-bought...

"What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?"  Henry David Thoreau.

Always far, far ahead of his time.  The principles of global warming, through the greenhouse effect and the capacity of various atmospheric gases to absorb and re-emit infra-red radiation (depending upon peculiarities of their molecular bonds), were actually worked out in 1857 by an Irish contemporary of Thoreau, the physicist John Tyndall.  Presumably, since the pure scientific discovery did not threaten any big fossil fuel companies, Tyndall's work did not give rise to a Denialist movement, and I'm not aware that he was charged with participating in a liberal hoax and conspiracy.  He just figured it out, and even calculated that it was water vapor that was the strongest gaseous contributor to heating the troposphere.  

I've been reading a lot lately about the psychological effects of abrupt climate change.  To wit, people are freaking out at the disruption of normal patterns.  It is not normal, for example, for 75-foot waves to break onshore in Cornwall, on England's south coast.  

John Nissen, writing in Ecologist, notes:

 The long spell of wet weather here in the UK this winter is due to a stuck pattern of the polar jet stream, such that it frequently passes over us. Meanwhile the mid-US has been experiencing an extreme cold spell, as the jet stream meanders southwards in a gigantic loop. Strong scientific evidence suggests that this jet stream behaviour, producing an increasing frequency of weather extremes at mid-latitudes, is primarily driven by Arctic warming; global warming is only a secondary, compounding factor.

Mr. Nissen then urges prompt action to avert "abrupt climate change."  I know that his intentions are good, but um...if it's already happening, if it's attributable to Arctic amplification, then isn't abrupt climate change here?  Which, I must say, is a complete bummer, because if it's here, then it's here for reasons that will never go away during any relevant lifetime or era.  What's going to put the ice back at the North Pole?

Paul Beckwith is a great explicator of the phenomenon.  It's good we have people like Paul or we would be left only with the analyses of contemporary life offered by such august bodies as the Council of Morons at the New York Times, who seem unaware that the fundamental conditions of human life have changed.  Personally, I think this is newsworthy, but then what do I know?

Paul Beckwith explains abrupt climate change and Arctic amplification with an economy of effort that reflects, in my view, a deep understanding.  (He's a chess master, and thus thinks with a clear logic.)  The jet stream, in its classic formation of yesteryear, depended on a temperature gradient between the Equator and the North Pole.  The consistently warm weather at the Equator tended to flow north toward the cold Arctic.  The rotation of the Earth deflected this flow eastward, or to the "right," because of Coriolis force (principles first worked out by Richard Feynman, using a few idle moments of his immense intelligence).  These dynamics tended to keep the eastward flowing jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere within a fairly tight band, with predictable peaks and troughs.

With the Arctic warming 4 or 5 times faster than the Equator, however, the gradient has broken down, and what Paul calls a general "equilibration" of temperature in the Northern Hemisphere means that just about any kind of weather can happen anywhere at any time. The jet stream is a meandering, lethargic, unpredictable mess, plunging southward, streaking northward, breaking into pieces. Arctic cold in Georgia, drought in California (except that right now we're having an "atmospheric river" storm which is dumping huge amounts of rain on the Bay Area), and waves at Cornwall which make the breakers at Maverick's in Half Moon Bay seem puny by comparison.

A little too late for "averting" anything, I think.  We're into adaptation, and as with everything else about climate change, arriving decades ahead of the formal, model-based predictions.  The Denialists appear to have been right about the climate scientists after all: their models were way off.  They were much too optimistic.