“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.” ~Mark Twain
I am writing this on the morning after a possible tornado swept through Jefferson County, Alabama. Two persons are confirmed dead, and rescue workers are conducting house-by-house searches. Ironically, the severe weather has delayed the release of a report on how the state can better prepare for such disasters. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley appointed the group last August to study the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak, which caused almost 2,000 injuries and 139 deaths just in Alabama.
Last year’s extreme weather events broke many records. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), April 2011 was ranked as the most active tornado month on record, beating the previous record month by over 200 tornadoes, or an increase of almost 140 percent.
But it wasn’t just tornadoes breaking records last year: According to The Weather Channel, “When it comes to extremes in U.S. weather, there may be few years that can match the ferocity of 2011. Snowstorms, tornadoes, flooding, exceptional drought, heat, and tropical cyclones. And that's only through the first nine months!” NOAA reports a record 14 weather and climate disasters in 2011, each costing more than $1 billion in damages in addition to lives lost.
It remains to be seen whether or not 2012 will be another extreme weather record-breaker—regression to the mean lends hope that 2012 won’t be quite as bad as last year. But what happens if the mean is shifting? That is, what if the average amount of severe weather is going up, making what was once above-average the new average?
In temperature records dating back to 1880, each of the last 11 years has been among the warmest ever recorded, with both 2005 and 2010 tying for hottest. Even the coolest year of this group, 2008, was still the 13thwarmest year in well over a century! Worldwide, hotter is the new average.
How do higher average global temperatures relate to extreme weather events? The relationship is complex, but we know, for example, that warmer air holds more moisture, which can lead to more thunderstorms and extreme precipitation events. We also know that the earth is not warming uniformly, for the poles are warming much more rapidly than equatorial regions.
This uneven warming is shifting global weather patterns. Some areas are getting hotter, some colder. Some are receiving more rainfall, some less. On average, however, the temperature is rising, and the extra water in the air is falling out in more extreme events. Rather than uniformly increasing rainfall, many areas are receiving record-breaking flash floods, separated by extended droughts! In short, what we have is weather that is both more extreme and, in many cases, very different from past weather patterns—exactly what is predicted under various global warming scenarios.
The specific relationship between global warming and both tornadoes and hurricanes is still not well understood, but even if tornadoes and hurricanes are not increasing, that does not mean that global warming is not playing a role. This is because we have a very different atmosphere than the one we would be living on if the Industrial Revolution had never occurred.
Fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas were created very slowly over millions of years. Yet we have burnt vast quantities of these ancient energy stores over the course of only a century or two—a mere blink of an eye, as we measure geologic time. Each year, this burning releases more than 100 times the amount of fossil carbon dioxide released by volcanoes. This extra, old carbon is acidifying our oceans and creating our present climate chaos.
As I’ve said before, we’re not adjusting the thermostat of Spaceship Earth, we’re sabotaging our ship’s life-support systems. Clean, renewable energy technology will not only save us from the problems of Peak Oil, which I discussed last week, but it will also offer us a bit of insurance against added climate chaos. Join us here next week when I plan to tell you more about the Renewable Energy Technology program at our Ecotech Institute in Denver.
“A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” ~Marcel Proust
by Kyle Crider
Kyle is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.