Climate Change, as evidenced by Extreme Weather Events

Blizzards blow snow.

When the door is opened to a new day, a door print may be revealed. And yet one more view of our changing world.

Data suggests that extreme weather events are intensifying. One indicator is that we are seeing heavier precipitation in a single day. It is reasonable to attribute this to the excessive consumption of fossil fuels: for transportation, for heating larger homes, for using powered tools to do what we used to do by hand, and so forth. The simple reality of our habit of excessive consumption is that we are extracting carbon and converting it into atmospheric H2O and CO2. The natural processes on our planet have stored away carbon for hundreds of millions of years, and for the last century, humanity has been engaged in an accelerating binge of extreme consumption.

Why is more Carbon in the atmosphere a problem…

…and what happens with that load of CO2? First, it resides in the atmosphere, where it warms the climate, by trapping sunlight energy. Then, it relocates into plants and the water. Some carbon is absorbed by plants, and becomes locked up as woody material, but rampant deforestation has reduced that benefit. Other carbon is flushed into the oceans, where it acidifies as carbonic acid, H2CO3. This higher acidity accelerates the dissolution of calcitic structures, thus pushing corals, seashells, and other basic marine lifeforms toward extinction.

Eventually, this carbon will follow the laws of chemistry and precipitate out as a solid, becoming new layers of limestone and pockets of buried plant debris (to become fossil fuels for later generations). Seemingly, the carbon becomes locked up and out of the system … except that we humans have grown to be so many, and are so aggressive at consuming, we keep re-injecting that same carbon back into our air.

No intelligent person disputes the heat-trapping properties of CO2, also known as ‘the Greenhouse Effect‘. No intelligent person disputes the increasing acidification of our oceans, and the damage it is causing. No intelligent person disputes the rapid decline of the icecaps and glaciers, and the serious consequences of sea-rise we will face in the next few generations. Cities (and airports) will become submerged.

Now, looking at a door print of snow in New England…

…is it reasonable to deny we are warming the planet? No, not at all. The door print is a consequence of a single weather event, while climate change is a reflection of the whole year weather pattern. We are nearing the end of the six-month half of the year when no sunlight warms the northern tip of our planet. Lacking that solar energy, the northern hemisphere cools down, while at the same time added CO2 intensifies warming where the sun does shine, in the southern atmosphere. Logically, as these differences become more extreme, so too will become the weather, which reflects the atmosphere’s effort toward uniformity. In other words, that heavy cold air will plunge southward, and when it does it will interact with air laden with larger amounts of moisture, due to warmer temperatures to the south. The result: larger precipitation events, and taller door prints.

Some Graphic Evidence

Below is a graph which illustrates the changing climate. It shows 100-years of data, as compiled by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In this case, the green bars indicate the size of the precipitation event, as a percentage of total precipitation. The data is for the Northeastern states, and focuses on precipitation events during the cold half of the year, from October through March. The data shows that, prior to 1950, the biggest annual cold-season precipitation events happened every few years and dumped 16-25% of the total precipitation for that cold season. From 1950-2005, we saw a similar pattern, but the biggest annual cold-season precipitation events dumped 16-43% of the total. And, in the last five years, this has again intensified, with the biggest storms now dumping 22-55% of the total cold-season precipitation. A black horizontal line reflects that, for all time, the typical largest event is eleven percent of the total precipitation for that cold season. So, in summary, the average over the last century is roughly 11%, but the trend has accelerated from 20%, to 30%, to nearly 40%.

Notice two other details on this NOAA chart: the clear upward trend of highest green bars, and the intensification of green bars in recent decades. The conclusion is clear: our weather is intensifying.

How does this connect to Aviation Impacts?

Our modern lifestyle has rapidly evolved to maximize consumption. We think nothing about getting into a car and driving to a store to pick up a DVD. We drive to fitness centers to stay fit. We leave the broom in the corner and blow our driveways. We use chemical weedkillers, instead of simple exercise, to sterilize our space. This whole package makes no sense.

We do not have to live in our oversized homes; we do not have to consume to excess; we choose to. These choices are not solely internal, though, as they are driven by marketing pressures. Those same marketing tools are used extensively in aviation, to encourage us to fly. According to our tax codes and the marketed image and ‘status symbol’, we should all want to become pilots or aircraft owners. For nearly seventy years, we have been led to believe it is normal and fun, to frequently fly for both work and pleasure.

We now live everywhere, but with an attachment to nowhere. As a consequence, we are killing our future.

To remedy this situation, we need to begin to consume more deliberately. Our government, through agencies such as FAA, needs to get away from promoting excessive consumption, and initiate new rules that actually discourage excess. A steep, revenue-neutral carbon tax would help. The end to huge FAA subsidies to build and expand airports would also help.

A Few Links…

  • WEBU.S. Climate Extremes Index (CEI). A webpage provided by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), located in Asheville, NC. NCDC maintains the world’s largest climate data archive, and is the source for the graph in this aiR post.
  • WEBHistories of Things to Come. A blog by a writer and academic posting “…histories of things that define the spirit of our times.” Her posts include many fascinating images.
  • WEBClimate Change Indicators in the United States, 2012. An 18Mb PDF report, created by EPA.
  • aiR-POST — 10/9/12, Is Arctic ice melting faster than expected?
  • aiR-POST — 11/5/12, Flooding at LaGuardia, related to Hurricane Sandy