November 16, 2008

Here comes winter

Today is a good 20 degrees colder than yesterday. So much for global warming...except that's not how it goes. Heat is energy, and the climate is a system driven by that heat energy. If you put more energy into a motor, it doesn't simply get hotter - it runs faster, and if you overdo it, it burns out. Likewise, the atmosphere is a heat-driven motor, and putting more energy - more heat - into it makes it run faster. In this case, it oscillates, running between hotter than normal and colder than normal in quick succession. Sure, over the long term, the overall trend is upward (warmer), but over the short term you get more both more colder days as well as more hotter days.

27 years ago, when I left New Jersey for college, we had just experienced a horrendous winter - 3 blizzards that dropped a foot of snow each time. I could not wait to escape to California, and escape I did. California, in the meantime, was experiencing increasing series of droughts, changing the weather there as well. As a non-native, my ability to see the changes there is limited, but I did still see changes in the 9 years I lived in California's Central Valley, as winters became milder and even the infamous Tule (pronounced 'too-lee') fogs became less dense and much more driveable. Even just from 2003 to 2005, the winter fogs I drove through each weekend became much less severe. At the start of that period, if I wanted to drive up CA-99 I needed to find and tailgate a big rig; by 2005, that was no longer necessary.

Getting (or coming) back to New Jersey, when I arrived here last year I had certain expectations of the weather and the seasons formed during my childhood here. I expected that summer would be hot and painfully humid, autumn would be crisp and colorful, and that snow would be on the ground from January into March. I've since experienced two summers and am finishing my second autumn, and things have changed so much in the intervening years. Compared especially to the 100+ degrees of a California inland summer, the occasional day in the 90s is no challenge. During this most recent fall, the trees did not seem so much to cycle through normal color changes as either resist changing entirely - there were still green leaves on some trees yesterday, while others were bare - or go straight to brown, skipping the reds and yellows. Even last winter was nothing - it barely snowed at all.

That the globe is warming is pretty much a an accepted argument these days. About the only people who don't accept it are living in caves, away from the increasingly disrupted economic cycles. The argument has moved now from whether to why, to whether human activity has disrupted the climate or whether this is a natural weather cycle. This is an area that's not amenable to true certainty, but for goodness' sake, if it's us that's causing it, we really should stop.

What we are most likely doing to make this happen is our inefficient use of energy. Not only are we as a national society digging up and using up a lot of old stored sunlight, but as a world society we are releasing gases into the air that have been buried in the ground for a long time. Additionally, we are processing materials through herd animals and producing greenhouse gases - the "bovine flatulence" problem. In short, not only are we using up stored energy that we'll never have back, we're being disgusting wastrels with it. Our cars, our homes, out businesses, all of the ways in which we use energy are terribly inefficient. There's no excuse for 12mpg sport-utility vehicles except that non-competitive auto makers created and exploited a niche in making these crazy things.

In addition to changing the energy basis of our society, then, we need to get serious about being efficient with that energy. This is not a matter of "personal virtue" - and what's wrong with being virtuous, anyway, that someone can think it's an insult? - this is a matter of getting the biggest bang for our buck, and for minimizing the mess we're making of our world. Sure, I don't want the winter of '79 back again, but I'd sure like to not lose the blazing colors that Northeastern autumn is justly famous for, the days when every leaf is a flower.

Posted by scott at November 16, 2008 04:39 PM