Sunday, January 08, 2012

The non-winter of 2011-2012: climate change at an inflection point of no return?

Has climate change reached an inflection point?

In the DC area, this year’s early winter seems like the warmest ever.  Yet, we had the freak one inch (at least in Arlington) the last Saturday in October, the day of the freak Noreaster that clobbered New England.
Recently, the media has reported on release of methane from the permafrost in Siberia and other places. Methane has much more heat retaining capacity that carbon dioxide. Relative small warming in the arctic could conceivably trigger runaway greenhouse effects.

Well, DC had a winter similar to this in 1972-1973, with some freak snow in October, and none for the rest of the winter.  In 1997-1998 supposedly there was no recorded snow around DC.  I think it was warm enough even in Quebec in January, 1998 to have an ice storm. 

And some reports do say that extremely cold air is bottled up in Alaska and Eastern Siberia (where the permafrost is). The reason it doesn’t move south is that the usual high pressure is missing over Greenland.  Once it settles in there, low pressure systems tend to track farther south, resulting in much more snow (as in 2009-2010). Curiously, there's been more snow than usual in West Texas, New Mexico, and northern Arizona. 

And there have been a few winters where February is colder than January.  That sometimes happens in areas with a large exposure to water.

In 1995-1996, the winter started out mild, but five big storms came January to March.  In 1977-1978, when I lived in NYC, the winter was mild until Jan. 20, when there were three massive blizzards, one per month.

In 1957, there was one heavy snow and brief cold spell around Dec. 4, and no more winter weather until Feb. 15, when there was a massive blizzard, and then another one on March 20, leading to the only extended power outage in my high school days.

Statistically, the coldest day in DC is Jan. 20.  The hottest is July 21.

Still, this winter seems scary. The snow pack is almost at a record minimum, and the lack of snow can accelerate the warming and not allow cold to settle in as the Sun gradually returns to higher positions in the sky, especially after mid February.

There other natural hazards to watch.  Sunspot activity is expected to increase 2012-2014, leading increased risk that a massive solar storm could overwhelm the Earth’s magnetic field and power grid, leading to a “Carrington Event” as in 1859, when a solar flare actually started wildfires.  Power in some areas could be out for months.  Utilities should learn how to protect their transformers and generating equipment with Faraday cages (as shown in the recent film “The Darkest Hour”).

A supervolcano could erupt. There is some concern not only about Yellowstone (due after 600000 years) but also the supervolcano around Vesuvius and Naples, Italy.

Or the Cumbre Vieja volcano could avalanche, sending a 200-foot-tsunami across the Atlantic to the US East Coast.

And are Americans, with weakened social structures, ready to deal with the physical hardships caused by our planet?  It might not even be our fault.

But don’t believe the Dec 21, 2012 crowd. It might not take that long. 

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