Climate Change, the Winter of 2013-14, and Global Warming
While I’m fully aware that linking these subjects
together is a hazardous undertaking — even speaking of “global warming” is no
longer politically correct — still, this winter’s brutal weather should even
give us northerners, who are supposedly used to such extremes, pause to
reflect. After all, most of us, despite
our isolation, are more or less in touch, thanks to TV and the Internet, with
what is going on in other parts of the country or even in some other places in
the world. We hear of gigantic typhoons in the
as I may have mentioned before in writing about this subject, when I first
heard of the term “global warming” nearly thirty years ago, we were also told
that at least some scientists believed its arrival would be most noticeable
through wild extremes in the weather, with some summers unusually hot, while
others unusually cool. The same goes
with the winters, at least for awhile.
Less than a decade ago, we were also told that
But this winter of 2013-14 has been brutally different, starting early on December 16th when the morning temperature here was -17F and thereafter no above freezing temperatures were seen except during a brief thaw on January 11-13 only to go back down to -21F on the morning of Jan. 21st. While the thaw lowered the snow level a few inches, more and more fell, as well as blew in on strong winds which, combined with a lack of crust-forming sunshine, has made cross-country skiing difficult, if not downright dangerous at times, given the wind-chill. Early in the morning of February 27 it was -32F outside my cabin, and on March 3rd it was -26F at sunrise. Since then, March has seen temperature as low as -26 (Mar.3) and high as 53 (Mar. 10). With only a few brief thaws that compressed the snow rather than melting it, at this point in time (Mar 15) I’m still more or less “snowed-in” with my Jeep parked a half-mile away -- next to the county road.
Does this mean that overall, that there really is a climate change taking place? And if so, how can it be in the direction of global warming, even while some, given this winter’s weather, are beginning to wonder if we aren’t experiencing the onset of a mini-“Ice Age.” Some were even talking about this weather being caused by what seems to be a lull in sunspot activity at a time that the Sun should be at the peak of its 11-year cycle? But the week after I heard this theory it quit snowing and the sky cleared enough that I was able to check with my small telescope equipped with a sun filter and to my surprise there was one of the biggest sunspots I’ve seen in years!
But even if there is a strange lull in the Sun’s 11-year cycle, does this mean that overall, the earth will not continue to warm up? After all, history has recorded mini-“Ice-Ages” before, most noticeably in the late 1600s, but that did not stop the over-all warming trend since the last major Ice Age began to thaw out about 20,000 years ago. So given this overall trend — with the next major Ice Age not scheduled to begin until about 30,000 years from now — what kind of weather can we expect in the meantime?
To try to predict what will happen, even in the short term, we first have to understand what is going on right now. And to do that, we need to try to understand a number of separate things that seem to be going on all at once. These are, first, the increasingly wild behavior of the high altitude jet streams; second, the polar vortex and its oscillations, and, finally, the suspected relationship of the later to the stratosphere and what seems to be going on way up there.
A. The Jet Streams
I mention “streams” in the plural, as there are four of them, two south of the equator and two north of it, each circling the earth from West to East. They are caused by a combination of the earth’s rotation and the heating of the atmosphere by solar radiation. They were only discovered after high altitude aviation began in the middle of last century, but now, better understood, they can be seen as acting something like conveyor-belts that tend to drag the air closer to the ground along with them, thus dominating our short term weather patterns.
The polar jet streams are generally located at about a latitude of 70ºN or 70ºS — depending on which pole we’re talking about. But a lot like a wiggling snake, they can swing widely from side to side. The altitude of the polar jet streams fluctuate between about 23,000 to 36,000 feet above the surface of the earth. The north polar jet stream tends to mover further north in the summer and further south in the winter months, as the south polar jet stream does just the opposite. The polar jet streams are also generally the strongest, compared to the two subtropical jet streams, which tend to follow tracks about 30ºN & 30ºS respectively, but at higher altitudes ranging from 33,000 to 45,000 feet, and are generally weaker. In any case, they are a real boon to aviation — providing you are flying west to east.
— and this is the really wild card in particular — each jet stream is
susceptible to deflection that often throws them even farther off-course. This due to what is called the “coriolis
effect”, which is the tendency of any spinning object to throw off debris or
parts of itself (think of a spinning tire throwing mud from its treads). In the case of the jet streams, this
deflection tends to be toward the equator, which in our case, in
it’s not just the polar jet stream that affects us here. Since the normal track of the northern
subtropical jet stream is only about 15 to 20 degrees south of us, it also
often affects us here in
Then there are the effects, even farther away, of what is called the “Northern Pacific Oscillation” which in turn seems to be influenced by the el Niño (so named when unusually warm water, originating in the southwest Pacific finally reaches the west coast of South America around Christmas time) or, in some years, its contrarian cooler-water sister, la Niña, takes its place. Either way, they eventually affect even the North American west coast. Normally, these Pacific Ocean events don’t affect us much here up in the Great Lakes State, but recently, this year and last, la Niña has been dominant, and when that happens California and the American Southwest get very little moisture, because the ocean temperature and currents also affect the subtropical atmospheric jet streams.
No one seems to know just
what causes the el Niño/la Niña
oscillation. Most climate scientists
think it must be connected to the warming of the atmosphere, thus the ocean
beneath, but I came across a website claiming it all was result of volcanic
eruptions under the
B. Polar Vortices
Again I switch to the plural (or “vortexes” if you
must) not just because they exist at both poles, and are usually confined to
latitudes north (or again south in the case of Antarctica) of the polar jet
streams, but because our Northern Polar Vortex actually has two major centers
of vortex activity, which describes what happens when you have an area where
the cold Arctic air tends to stay in one place. For North America this is
concentration tends to be near the northeast corner of the continental land
mass, close to Baffin Island — just west of the iciest location in the western
northern hemisphere, which is Greenland. The other northern center of vortex
activity, in this case for the Eurasian continent, is the northeastern corner
one of the best sources for information as well as speculation as to what is
happening with the Polar Vortex is Dr. Richard (“Ricky”) Rood at the
In 2010 Vladimir Petoukhov and Vladimir
Semenov published a paper in which they called attention to the diminishment of
C. Global Warming and the Stratosphere.
I’ve saved discussion of Global Warming until last, hoping that by now the reader might be convinced I’ve done some homework on the subject. Nor am I going to get into the reasons that Global Warming seems to be happening. I’m going to confine my comments to what the scientists are observing. And to understand what they are observing, we have to know something about the basic structure of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth’s atmosphere is generally thought of as consisting in five layers, these separated by thin transition zones. On top is the ionosphere, full of charged particle of energy where auroras often appear. Below that is the thermosphere where the temperatures reach up to 100C. Next is the Mesosphere where the temperature can be as low as -100C. But for the purposes of this discussion, the two bottom layers count the most: first the one closest to the Earth, is the “troposphere” in which we live, and then, on top of that, the “stratosphere”. The troposphere is generally warmest at the earth’s surface, and coldest (around -40C/-40F: the point where the two temperature scales coincide) where it meets the transition zone to the stratosphere, at altitudes ranging from about 45,000 feet over the equator, to 30,000 feet over the poles. Way up there, contrary to the troposphere which gets colder the higher up you go, the stratosphere surprisingly gets warmer the higher one goes, culminating in temperatures reaching nearly 0C/32F at an altitude of about 50 miles above the earth. Or at least that’s what the data has always seemed to indicate in past decades.
However, what scientists have recently discovered is that the stratosphere seems now to be getting colder overall, and that this is most certainly due the much-publicized “greenhouse effect” discovered over a century ago when it was discovered that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases concentrated near the ceiling of a greenhouse tend to block the passage of whatever heat is generated lower down in the greenhouse. The climate scientists are convinced the same thing is happening at the top level the troposphere, both as indicated by air samples taken at its higher levels just below the transition zone into the stratosphere, and by concentrations of CO2 closer to earth which, as measured in air trapped in ice samples from many centuries back in the Greenland and Antarctic icecaps. These indicate the present concentrations of this gas about 1.4 times higher than before the industrial age began and is higher than any level found from any of the past warm periods between the Ice Ages over the past 800,000 or so years. Thus they conclude that all the heat radiated from the earth is being trapped — much the same as by a greenhouse roof with its concentration of CO2 — with the result that over all, the stratosphere, which normally would have been warmed by that radiated heat is actually getting colder. So far so good, if you consider gradual warming all over the Earth something to celebrate.
But it is at this point
that we seem to run into a strange deviation. A year or so back some climate
scientists began to report that rather than getting colder, the stratosphere
All this leads me to ask
two questions. First, what happens when
the continued warming of the Arctic regions starts melting all the permafrost
up there, releasing vast amounts of methane gas, thus greatly increasing the
greenhouse effect over the
Second, what about
So what can we expect in
the more immediate future — let’s say the next century or two? Obviously some people are going to have to
move from their sea-side homes very soon, in fact it is already happening in
Nor are there any simple answers. If researching for this article has taught me anything, it is that climate science is considerably more complicated than, and undubtedly more unpredictable than, let’s say, nuclear physics. So, in the meantime, how long will this period of instability last? It is hard to say. If climate change is something that can only be measured in decades, I suspect that overall global warming in general is a change that can probably only be measured in terms of whole centuries. If so, it is unfortunately likely to be with the result that, like the proverbial frog in the cauldron of slowly heated water, we will gradually find ourselves parboiled without having ever realized we were in serious trouble.
On the other hand, we know that however drastic climate change turns out to be, at least some humans will probably survive, just as our remote ancestors, or at least those who were smart enough, not simply survived, but even evolved into what we are today, partly by making the changes that were necessary to cope with or even take advantage of a changing environment.
R W Kropf 3/15/2014 updated 6/1/14 Climate Change.doc/html