Friday, May 13, 2011


A note to readers: It’s more than the shortage of quill pens and parchment that moves me to launch this late-blooming blog. After years on the smog beat as an environment writer, I’ve expanded my coverage to energy, which turns out to involve lots of technology. It also turns out to be fascinating.

Energy is the crossroads of the past and future, of belching 1920s smokestacks and biofuels made from algae. It’s embedded so deeply in daily life as to be invisible – until it’s not, when the next rate hike or power outage comes. It’s an engine of jobs and a casino of billion-dollar bets on technology that has to work. And a test of values: Will Americans choose the cheapest energy or the kindest to people and planet?

Come join the conversation, but play nice.

Let’s start with a topic we all can agree on: climate change!

It’s been a tough spring, I thought as hail pounded my expensive new roof the other night. Hundreds of tornadoes tore through the Southeast and Midwest, killing 24 people in North Carolina alone last month. The Mississippi is flooding middle-American towns and farms like something out of the Old Testament.

Is this what climate change looks like? Yes and no, says David Easterling, a scientist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville who studies extreme climate events.

“We’ve seen increases in heavy rainfall in the past, and that fits the climate models,” he says of the flooding. “Parts of the Midwest have seen that pattern.”

As air temperatures warm, the atmosphere holds more moisture that’s released as rain. Melting snow added to this year's deluges. North Dakota’s Red River is among those that “seem to have flooding just about every year,” Easterling says.

The two multi-year droughts the Carolinas have suffered in the past decade are also consistent with what’s expected of a warming climate, he said.

Tornadoes are another matter. While last month’s count could set a record, Easterling says it’s hard to compare activity to past years, when records relied solely on direct observations instead of modern tools such as Doppler radar.

Tornadoes form when a strong jet stream overhead and wind shear, the changes of speed or direction at different heights in the atmosphere, rotate thunderstorms. But climate models show wind shear will be less dramatic in the future.

“There really is not good evidence linking that to climate change,” he says.


BenRitmato said...

"Let’s start with a topic we all can agree on: climate change!"

Droll! Judging from comments on other stories, I imagine some will be clamoring to disagree with your post. I would have thought that the Mississippi flooding, as well as record drought and wildfires in Texas, and flooding in the Northwest happening at the same time would convince folks something strange is going on and needs attention.

Thanks for writing.

Jim said...

Ben, I think that we all DO agree that the planet has been through climate cycles. Disagreement arises over whether those cycles are the result of natural phenomena or of the activities of mankind.

BenRitmato said...

[An earlier comment didn't get posted. I'll try again without links to sources.]

Jim, you are right—there is a broad consensus that there have been various climate periods on the Earth.

As for the causes, I would like to explain why I am convinced that the recent warming has been caused by humans and not natural causes.

1) Humans have burned CO2 into the air that otherwise would be underground.

2) CO2 traps heat, increasing the greenhouse effect.

3) An increase in the greenhouse effect has been observed by scientists. That is to say, less heat is escaping from the earth into space.

4) There are multiple, independent measures that the earth is heating up. Heating up on the ground, in the air, and in the oceans.

5) 'Fingerprints' of human influence on the climate/greenhouse effect are evident. For example, nights are warming faster than days, the upper atmosphere is cooling while the lower atmosphere heats up, etc.

6) Other natural factors, such as the sun, don't account for the bulk of warming we are experiencing.