[Marxism] The heat is on

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 20 13:30:18 MDT 2012


90 Degrees in Winter: This Is What Climate Change Looks Like
March 20, 2012

by Bill McKibben
The National Weather Service is kind of the anti-Mike Daisey, a 
just-the-facts operation that grinds on hour after hour, day after 
day. It’s collected billions of records (I’ve seen the vast vaults 
where early handwritten weather reports from observers across the 
country are stored in endless rows of ledgers and files) on 
countless rainstorms, blizzards, and pleasant summer days. So the 
odds that you could shock the NWS are pretty slim.

Beginning in mid-March, however, its various offices began issuing 
bulletins that sounded slightly shaken. “There’s extremes in 
weather, but seeing something like this is impressive and 
unprecedented,” Chicago NWS meteorologist Richard Castro said. 
“It’s extraordinarily rare for climate locations with 100+ year 
long periods of records to break records day after day after day,” 
the office added in an official statement.

It wasn’t just Chicago, of course. A huge swath of the nation 
simmered under bizarre heat. International Falls, MN, the “icebox 
of the nation,” broke its old temperature records—by 22 degrees, 
which according to weather historians may be the largest margin 
ever for any station with a century’s worth of records. Winner, 
South Dakota reached 94 degrees on the second-to-last day of 
winter. That’s in the Dakotas, two days before the close of 
winter. Jeff Masters, founder of WeatherUnderground, the web’s 
go-to site for meteorological information, watched an eerie early 
morning outside his Michigan home and wrote “this is not the 
atmosphere I grew up with,” a fact confirmed later that day when 
the state recorded the earliest F-3 strength tornado in its 
history. Other weathermen were more…weathermanish. Veteran 
Minneapolis broadcaster Paul Douglas, after noting that Sunday’s 
low temperature in Rochester broke the previous record high, 
blogged “this is OFF THE SCALE WEIRD even for Minnesota.”

It’s hard to overstate how impossible this weather is—when you 
have nearly a century and a half of records, they should be hard 
to break, much less smash. But this is like Barry Bonds on 
steroids if his steroids were on steroids, an early season 
outbreak of heat completely without precedent in its scale and 
spread. I live in Vermont, where we should be starting to slowly 
thaw out—but as the heat moved steadily east ski areas shut down 
and golf courses opened.

And truth be told, it felt pretty good. Most people caught in the 
torrid zones probably reacted pretty much like President Obama: 
“It gets you a little nervous about what is happening to global 
temperatures,” he told the audience assembled at a fundraiser at 
Tyler Perry’s Atlanta mansion (records were falling in Georgia 
too). “On the other hand I have really enjoyed the nice weather.”

Anyone thinking about the seasons ahead was at least as 
ambivalent, and most were scared. Here are a few of the things 
that could happen with staggering warmth like this early in the year:

The plants that have budded out prematurely (there’s fruit budding 
across the nation’s apple belt) can be easily killed by the 
freezes that will come if temperatures revert to anything like 
normal. (Frost is common here, for instance, late into May).

The soils left exposed by the early retreat of snow will dry out 
much earlier in the growing season, raising dramatically the risk 
of drought

Forests dry out too. In recent years three-quarters of the big 
fires across the West have come in years when snow melted well 
ahead of schedule. Across the East the next six or eight weeks, 
before trees are fully leafed out, will be scary for forest 
rangers unless we get heavy rains.

One could go on: mild winters and early springs allow ticks to 
spread into new places, carrying disease. Reservoirs can start 
evaporating early. We see wickedly strong storms along the frontal 
boundaries of these record-setting zones. But the real fears are 
the things we can’t anticipate, simply because we are moving into 
uncharted territory. We know that we can make a normal seasonal 
cycle, with variations within a typical range, work—we know, 
because we’ve done it as long as we’ve been here. But we’ve never 
seen anything like what we’re seeing this week.

Except, of course, in the models that the climatologists have been 
printing out on their supercomputers for the last two decades. 
This is what climate change looks like, just like last year’s new 
record for multi-billion dollar weather disasters is what climate 
change looks like. As Masters put it in a recent blog post, 
notable for its understatement, “it is very unlikely that the 
intensity of the heat would have been so great unless we were in a 
warming climate.”

One could make some sad jokes about the coincidence of Chicago’s 
record heat with the Illinois primary, or with the president’s 
tour this week of drilling rigs to convince Americans that he’s a 
great champion of fossil fuel (with a visit to a solar production 
facility thrown in for good measure). But the power of our 
politics seems puny this week compared to the power of the carbon 
we’ve unleashed for a century.

Still, one’s compelled to make a witness and put up a fight. On 
May 5, all around the world, 350.org is organizing a day for 
people to testify to the impacts of climate change. There will be 
Pakistanis forced from their homes in the worst flooding the 
country’s ever seen, and Somalians dealing with a drought horrible 
even by the standards of the Horn of Africa. Thais, who watched 
floods do damage last fall equal to 18 percent of the country’s 
GDP [1], and El Salvadorans who watched 15 years worth of 
development wash away in a week of record rains. Lots of Americans 
were already planning to join in—Texans who watched drought kill 
half a billion trees there last year, Vermonters who saw the state 
damn near wash away in the wake of Irene. But now they’ll have 
more company.
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