A Summer of Extremes

Because of our emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, a little extra energy gets trapped in our atmosphere every day. Over time, this energy builds up. It manifests itself in the form of higher temperatures, stronger storms, larger droughts, and melting ice. Global warming, then, isn’t about temperatures as much as it is about energy.

The extra energy, and its consequences, don’t get distributed evenly around the world. Weather systems, which move heat and moisture around the planet, aren’t very fair: they tend to bully some places more than others. These days, it’s almost as if the weather picks geographical targets each season to bombard with extremes, then moves on to somewhere else. This season, the main target seems to be North America.

The warmest 12 months on record for the United States recently wrapped up with a continent-wide heat wave and drought. Thousands of temperature records were broken, placing millions of citizens in danger. By the end of June, 56% of the country was experiencing at least “moderate” drought levels – the largest drought since 1956. Wildfires took over Colorado, and extreme wind storms on the East Coast knocked out power lines and communication systems for a week. Conditions have been similar throughout much of Canada, although its climate and weather reporting systems are less accessible.

“This is what global warming looks like,”, said Professor Jonathan Overpeck from the University of Arizona, a sentiment that was echoed across the scientific community in the following weeks. By the end of the century, these conditions will be the new normal.

Does that mean that these particular events were caused by climate change? There’s no way of knowing. It could have just been a coincidence, but the extra energy global warming adds to our planet certainly made them more likely. Even without climate change, temperature records get broken all the time.

However, in an unchanging climate, there would be roughly the same amount of record highs as record lows. In a country like the United States, where temperature records are well catalogued and publicly available, it’s easy to see that this isn’t the case. From 2000-2009, there were twice as many record highs as record lows, and so far this year, there have been ten times as many:

The signal of climate change on extreme weather is slowly, but surely, emerging. For those who found this summer uncomfortable, the message from the skies is clear: Get used to it. This is only the beginning.

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March Migration Data

In my life outside of climate science, I am an avid fan of birdwatching, and am always eager to connect the two. Today I’m going to share some citizen science data I collected.

Last year, I started taking notes during the spring migration. Every time I saw a species for the first time that year, I made a note of the date. I planned to repeat this process year after year, mainly so I would know when to expect new arrivals at our bird feeders, but also in an attempt to track changes in migration. Of course, this process is imperfect (it simply provides an upper bound for when the species arrives, because it’s unlikely that I witness the very first arrival in the city) but it’s better than nothing.

Like much of the Prairies and American Midwest, we’ve just had our warmest March on record, a whopping 8 C above normal. Additionally, every single bird arrival I recorded in March was earlier than last year, sometimes by over 30 days.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. I haven’t been any more observant than last year – I’ve spent roughly the same amount of time outside in roughly the same places. It also seems unlikely for such a systemic change to be a product of chance, although I would need much more data to figure that out for sure. Also, some birds migrate based on hours of daylight rather than temperature. However, I find it very interesting that, so far, not a single species has been late.

Because I feel compelled to graph everything, I typed all this data into Excel and made a little scatterplot. The mean arrival date was 20.6 days earlier than last year, with a standard deviation of 8.9 days.

Winter in the Woods

Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast… a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.

So writes Edward Abbey, in a passage that Ken sent to me nearly two years ago. The quote is now stuck to my fridge, and I abide by it as best I can.

It’s pretty easy to find areas of untouched forest within my city. Living in a floodplain, it’s only practical to leave natural vegetation growing around the rivers – it acts as a natural sponge when the water rises. In the warmer months, hiking in the woods is convenient, particularly because I can bike to the edge of the river. But in the winter, it’s not so easy. The past few months have consistently been about 10 C above normal, though, and today I found a shortcut that made the trip to the woods walkable.

The aspen parkland in winter is strange. Most wildlife travel south or begin hibernating by early October, and no evergreen species grow here naturally. As you walk through the naked branches, it’s easy to think of the woods as desolate. But if you slow down, pay attention, and look around more carefully, you see signs of life in the distance:

Black-capped Chickadee

White-tailed Deer

If you stand still and do your best to look non-threatening, some of the more curious animals might come for a closer inspection:

If you imitate a bird's call well enough, it will come right up to you

A mother deer and her fawn, probably about eight months old

The species that live here year-round are some of the most resilient on the continent. They have survived 40 above and 40 below, near-annual droughts and floods, and 150 years of colonization. The Prairies is a climate of extremes, and life has evolved to thrive in those extremes.

So maybe this isn’t the land I am fighting for – it will probably be able to handle whatever climate change throws at it – but it is the land I love regardless.

Happy Christmas to everyone, and please go out and enjoy the land you’re fighting for, as a gift to yourself.

The Pitfalls of General Reporting: A Case Study

Today’s edition of Nature included an alarming paper, indicating record ozone loss in the Arctic due to an unusually long period of cold temperatures in the lower stratosphere.

On the same day, coverage of the story by the Canadian Press included a fundamental error that is already contributing to public confusion about the reality of climate change.

Counter-intuitively, while global warming causes temperatures in the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere) to rise, it causes temperatures in the stratosphere (the next layer up), as well as every layer above that, to fall. The exact mechanics are complex, but the pattern of a warming troposphere and a cooling stratosphere has been both predicted and observed.

This pattern was observed in the Arctic this year. As the Nature paper mentions, the stratosphere was unusually cold in early 2011. The surface temperatures, however, were unusually warm, as data from NASA shows:

Mar-May 2011

Dec-Feb 2011

While we can’t know for sure whether or not the unusual stratospheric conditions were caused by climate change, this chain of cause and effect is entirely consistent with what we can expect in a warming world.

However, if all you read was an article by the Canadian Press, you could be forgiven for thinking differently.

The article states that the ozone loss was “caused by an unusually prolonged period of extremely low temperatures.” I’m going to assume that means surface temperatures, because nothing else is specified – and virtually every member of the public would assume that too. As we saw from the NASA maps, though, cold surface temperatures couldn’t be further from the truth.

The headline, which was probably written by the Winnipeg Free Press, rather than the Canadian Press, tops off the glaring misconception nicely:

Record Ozone loss over the Arctic caused by extremely cold weather: scientists

No, no, no. Weather happens in the troposphere, not the stratosphere. While the stratosphere was extremely cold, the troposphere certainly was not. It appears that the reporters assumed the word “stratosphere” in the paper’s abstract was completely unimportant. In fact, it changes the meaning of the story entirely.

The reaction to this article, as seen in the comments section, is predictable:

So with global warming our winters are colder?

First it’s global warming that is destroying Earth, now it’s being too cold?! I’m starting to think these guys know as much about this as weather guys know about forecasting the weather!

Al gore the biggest con man since the beginning of mankind!! This guys holdings leave a bigger carbon footprint than most small countries!!

I’m confused. I thought the north was getting warmer and that’s why the polar bears are roaming around Churchill looking for food. There isn’t ice for them to go fishing.

People are already confused, and deniers are already using this journalistic error as evidence that global warming is fake. All because a major science story was written by a general reporter who didn’t understand the study they were covering.

In Manitoba, high school students learn about the different layers of the atmosphere in the mandatory grade 10 science course. Now, reporters who can’t recall this information are writing science stories for the Canadian Press.

Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World

Even if you don’t have any intention of reading the new book by Prince Charles of Wales, it’s almost worth buying a copy just to admire it. Harmony: a New Way of Looking at our World is beautifully bound, with thick, glossy pages full of photographs that take you on a visual journey of the natural and architectural wonders of the world. Some, like the two-page spread of a humpback whale breaching, are joyful; others, such as the carcass of a young albatross, its digestive tract stuffed with plastic debris, are distressing.

The actual contents of the book were unique, but compelling. Rather than focusing on a particular issue and discussing it in depth, Prince Charles swept through just about every discipline you’d find in a modern university – agriculture, anthropology, architecture, art…and that’s only the A’s. This broad approach could easily have fallen into confusing disconnect, but he managed to connect each subject with what he referred to as a “golden thread”: a philosophical principle emphasizing the importance of following patterns seen in nature, and not trying to overwhelm or conquer it.

This approach is not really a “new way of looking at the world”, as the subtitle proclaims – in fact, it predates the dominant practice of Western society. For example, among indigenous civilizations that have modestly endured for many thousands of years, “not one…considers itself to be a master of creation”. Compare that to today’s industrialized society, which is only a few centuries old, and already views nature as a huge machine composed of independent parts which we can tweak at our will, rather than as a complex, dynamic system.

Prince Charles makes both emotional and scientific arguments to support his message, but he emphasizes the emotional ones first. I found this framing to be a turnoff, especially in the first chapter, which began, “This is a call to revolution. The Earth…is losing its balance and we humans are causing this to happen,” and continued from there. I couldn’t really take this narrative seriously, as I hadn’t yet heard his rational arguments, so the opening seemed far too dramatized. Perhaps others will find the initial appeals to emotion more effective than graphs and citations, but I was not impressed by them.

The meat of the book, however, was far better. Prince Charles explored a wide array of fascinating subjects that never managed to bore me. From the mathematical relationships found in the biosphere, to the importance of agricultural crop diversity in a changing climate, to the fascinating stream of engineering known as biomimicry, to the history of Islamic architecture…they may seem unrelated, but in fact all lead back to the importance of sustainability, in every sense of the word, and the incredible wisdom and beauty that can be found in nature.

The major flaw of Harmony, in my opinion, was the frequency of Prince Charles’ self-promotion. It seemed like nearly every second page contained a sentence similar to “(this particular problem) is very significant…and that is why I decided to start (some charity) to address it.” I think it’s wonderful that such a powerful and prolific figure is supporting projects for sustainability, but a better approach would have been to include an appendix of his charities at the end of the book. That way, the writing would have been less about him, and more about what he had to say.

There were also some obvious errors in the book, more serious than simple typos. 22 does not follow 13 in the Fibonacci Sequence, and the tilt of the Earth’s axis is not 24.5º (at least not at present). I expect these errors will be fixed in future editions.

The text’s discussion of climate change was fairly standard – think Al Gore’s slideshow, condensed into a few pages – but nonetheless very accurate and effective. There were some brief forays into paleoclimate which I enjoyed, too. Climate change was not the focus of this book, it was instead presented as a piece of a larger picture, but I appreciated the clarity with which it was addressed.

Although the scientific side of my mind is hyper-vigilant when I read nonfiction, I can relate to the deep affinity and spirituality people feel for the natural world. Nothing builds a sense of kinship like being out in the wilderness and recognizing how much smarter other species can be, in their own ways, than human beings. Nothing feels quite as healing as the quiet awe that strikes when a deer steps out onto the path ahead, or the joy and laughter that inevitably follow from watching songbirds. Nothing builds acceptance of the phenomenon of death like witnessing its omnipresence and necessity in any functioning ecosystem.

We could fill libraries with the economic, scientific, and health benefits of preserving nature in all its integrity. When it comes down to it, though, nature keeps us sane in the crazy world we have created for ourselves, and these emotional reasons are just as strong, if not stronger.

An Unlikely Priority

A small news splash surfaced this week over a recent paper in Nature, regarding the prospects for Arctic sea ice and, consequently, polar bear populations. Until this paper was published, studies had only examined business-as-usual scenarios. We didn’t really know whether or not, if we pursued aggressive mitigation, it would be too late to save the polar bears from extinction.

The GCM output this paper analysed suggested that there is hope. They found the relationship between temperature and sea ice cover to be more linear, and the ice-albedo feedback in the Arctic to be weaker, than we previously thought. Tipping points where sea ice is beyond hope might not be such a problem. Therefore, we may still have a chance to limit damage to the ecosystem that experiences consequences of climate change earliest and strongest, and the polar bears might still make it. Nature News has a great summary for those who want more detail on the literature.

When the story showed up in my CBC News feed, however, I was bewildered at the angle they took:

Polar bears could be saved from extinction if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced in the next decade or two, a study released Wednesday suggests.

As if that’s the most compelling reason to pursue mitigation…

Don’t get me wrong: it would be a shame to see the polar bears go. But it would be much worse to see agriculture in the subtropics go, or to see low-lying nations go. I believe that the public is wise enough to understand that sentimental notions about an oft-romanticized species are minuscule in their importance when compared to matters of human security.

Additionally, since polar bears reside at the top of the food chain, the ecological consequences of their loss – while certainly not trivial – would probably be less intense than if it were another species. Imagine the hypothetical scenario of termites going extinct – it would be much worse. Termites aren’t quite so cute and cuddly, though.

I continue to be amazed by choices that the mainstream media makes as to which studies to report on and which studies to ignore. Their picture of ordinary people’s priorities is baffling and somewhat insulting. I get it – I have a strong affinity for wildlife – but the species I care about the most is still Homo sapiens, despite its blatant shortcomings.