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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Warmer climates, bigger blizzards, more suffering.

It's all about the timing.

On Thursday, my diocesan newspaper ran my column on climate change and what Pope Benedict XVI refers to as “the energy problem” (Caritas in Veritate, §49). In the column, I implore my fellow Catholics—clergy and laity—to heed the science and embrace the moral implications of a warmer climate.

The next day, the Blizzard of 2013 hit Rhode Island. As I write this on the night after the storm, many thousands in my state and many more thousands across New England are without power—and the temperatures tonight will hover around ten degrees Fahrenheit.  

For critics of the science of climate change—most especially non-scientists—this blizzard and bitter cold offer proof against the theories of a warmer globe. Their logic is similar to that of Christianity’s critics, who point to perfectly happy, healthy, wealthy, attractive atheists to demonstrate that one does not need God to live well.

In both cases, people miss the point. And they see only what they wish to see.

Science tells us that  the atmosphere now holds greater amounts of thermal energy because of the presence additional heat-retaining “greenhouse” gases, like carbon dioxide, which comes from burning fossil fuels and other factors. This retention of thermal energy will only increase as we pump more carbon into the atmosphere. This does not imply that the planet will never again see temperatures below the freezing point of water. But it does mean is that the atmosphere will (and does) hold more energy and moisture—which both have to go somewhere.

As seen below, the Blizzard of 2013 shows that when tropical systems of wet, warm air intersect with very cold arctic air, the resulting “bombogenesis” (yes, that’s a meteorological word) creates strong winter storms that release the tropical moisture in intense bands of snow. Likewise, the tropical thermal energy breaks free as it collides with colder air. This creates high, hurricane-force winds. 

Image: NWS/Boston
Here's the rub: as there is more thermal energy in the atmosphere, there will be greater amounts of energy and moisture in more frequent tropical storm systems.

The science is not all that involved and there are resources to better educate ourselves on exactly how a warmer climate fuels bigger storms—even in winter.

Most recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued this document. Other resources include information from the US EnvironmentalProtection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

There’s more, I’m sure. Please share any resources that you know of in the comments below.

For now, as those of us with electricity and heat read these reports, let us pause and pray for those in the dark bitter chill of New England—those who wait in anguish as crews restore main distribution lines that went down in last night’s storm. And indeed for all those affected everywhere by more powerful storms, let us pray this prayer, adapted from a prayer for bad weather.

Father, all the elements of nature obey your command. Calm the storms that threaten us and turn our fear of your power into praise of your goodness. Protect and bless all those suffering from the effects of storms and bless and strengthen all workers struggling to restore power, light, heat, and hope. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

UPDATE: Here's what the blizzard looked like as it began moving off shore early Saturday.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

UPDATE 2: Here's what the Northeast looked like on the day after the storm.

Source: NWS/Boston

1 comment:

  1. Good post.

    You are so right about warmer air holding more water vapor (dessicating soil and plants), then coming down as big precip events -- deluges or blizzards, depending on the season & latitude.

    However, there is another thing that may be happening, tho the science isn't as strong on this yet: global warming may be causing more severe and frequent strongly negative arctic oscillations (and Rossby waves), which bring cold weather from north to south (killing our winter gardens here in the tip of S. Texas), and leaving the arctic warmer, instead of the more typical west-to-east pattern.


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