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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

If the United States is frozen, is climate change a hoax?

Chicago waits out the "polar vortex."  Photo: Flicker/akasped

By now you’re aware of the deadly cold that has spread across much of North America. (As I type it’s 8 degrees Fahrenheit outside my window. It was seven below zero a few nights ago. Much of the heartland has seen double-digit negatives.) This peculiar weather is not only inconvenient and uncomfortable for those with the means to stay warm, it is devastating for the homeless and for those who cannot afford to heat their homes.

In any event, a few critics of anthropogenic climate change are whooping it up. If it’s this cold, there can be no global warming. Right?

Well, not exactly.

First, let’s look at what is happening with this “polar vortex.” The Weather Channel website has a nice overview on the matter, including this passage:
One of several semi-permanent weather systems over the Earth, the polar vortex is an area of low pressure in the upper atmosphere, primarily in the stratosphere, the layer of the atmosphere above which most of our sensible weather occurs (known as the troposphere).
To emphasize, this vortex is semi-permanent. It is often in place near the poles. It is nothing new. 
The Northern Hemisphere polar vortex frequently, but not always, has centers in two main areas: near Canada's Baffin Island, and over northeast Siberia. There is a Southern Hemispheric version of the polar vortex, as well, within which depletion of the upper-atmospheric ozone layer occurs.
The vortex is strongest in winter, thanks to an increased temperature contrast between the polar regions and the mid-latitudes, including the United States.
Occasionally, pieces of the larger spin can break off and sweep toward southern Canada, helping to rive Arctic cold plunges into the U.S.
In the case of this outbreak, the main circulation of the polar vortex in the stratosphere and upper reaches of the troposphere remained in place over northern Greenland and near Baffin Island. If you think of the vortex as a spinning wheel, one of its "spokes" did extend southward into the U.S. as January began.
Meanwhile, lower in the atmosphere at jet stream level, a pair of upper-level disturbances, one from the northeast Pacific Ocean and another rotating southward out of Canada's Northwest Territories, merged to help dig a sharp southward plunge in the jet stream, unleashing the Arctic blast into the nation's Midwest, South and East. 
There's more at the web site, including graphics. But all that said, let’s remember a few other facts.

First, there have been these past few weeks record heat waves in the Southern Hemisphere. The Philippines is still recovering from one of the largest and strongest tropical storms ever seen on this planet. Then there's the United Kingdom. It and its neighbors have been bedeviled of late by strong storms and floods.

But since weather is not climate, we must keep everything in perspective. It’s the trends that count, not the weather of a single day or even a single year. Thus the intense heat in Australia and the intense cold in North America in themselves say little about the climate.

And so we must look at the first principles of climate change.

These include the off-the-chart rise in carbon concentrations in our atmosphere, as animated by this very helpful video from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory. The video nicely shows how recent rises (and falls) of carbon concentrations compare to historic ones—going back hundreds of thousands of years.

Next, there is evidence that the atmosphere is responding as one would expect when you mix in this much carbon and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures rise and snow fall levels drop. (NOAA has another helpful website to show us this.) Sea levels rise, too. (Again, thank you NOAA for yet another helpful tool: This sea-level rise viewer for the United States. If you know of seal-level projection resources for other parts of the world, please add them in the comments.)

And storm systems carry (and dump) more water because even slightly warmer air holds lots more water. Here’s a look at my own region of the globe.

Source: NOAA NWS/Taunton

The information plotted here shows what I could have told you without a graph, based on my experiences dealing with water pollution control infrastructure: storms in Rhode Island are dropping more rain than they had in the past. Even innocent New England passing summer showers have become the occasional tropical torrent.

Well, in any event, temperatures will begin to moderate tomorrow as the polar vortex snaps back into shape. Winter will continue and spring will come. The cycles of nature will go on but they will go on differently over time.

The science is clear on this—even if some deny it.

But if we can't agree on the science, could we not agree, if on nothing else, on the need to pray for those in harms way of foul weather. This prayer (which I've modified slightly) seems appropriate given tomorrow's gospel reading.

Jesus Christ a King of Glory has come in Peace. † God became man, † and the Word was made flesh. † Christ was born of a Virgin. † Christ suffered. † Christ was crucified. † Christ died. † Christ rose from the dead. † Christ ascended into Heaven. † Christ conquers. † Christ reigns. † Christ orders. † May Christ protect us from all storms, lightning, floods, cold, and heat. † Christ went through their midst in Peace, † and the Word was made Flesh. † Christ is with us with Mary. † Flee you enemy spirits because the Lion of the Generation of Judah, the Root David, has won. † Holy God! † Holy Powerful God! † Holy Immortal God! † Have mercy on us. Amen!

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