Hurricane Sandy’s belated recognition of the issue is way too late-

After hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the fossil fuel industry and its allies like the Koch Brothers, one wrong way hurricane affecting millions of people has put climate change back on the political map.

The melt of the Arctic Ocean and the polar jet stream-

Politics aside, there are many reasons to believe the likelihood of wrong way, late season hurricanes like Sandy has changed (increased). This increased likelihood is irreversible. In other words, it is too late to stop. It can’t be changed back. Here is the reason. The Arctic Ocean now melts almost completely in the summer, and that greatly changes the jet stream.

The melt is both the effect of warmer temperatures in the Arctic and also the cause of continuing warming.  It works this way. Ice reflects light and heat. Blue water absorbs and retains much of the heat.  Once ice melts it takes a lot of cold to refreeze it.  Now melted, the Arctic Ocean will not refreeze except for a meaningless couple feet in winter. Its deep blue waters will soak up more of the sun’s heat and make the Arctic warmer still.  On the land in the Arctic the melting permafrost is releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane gas. These gases cause more solar energy in the form of heat to be retained.  This is a positive feedback loop.

A milder Arctic and permanent changes in the polar jet stream-

So what if the Arctic is much milder?  Some say “sounds great!” Others say, “I don’t live there so it doesn’t matter.”

Yes, there are many things that have and will change. Many of us will cheer some of them, but the one that affects the entire northern hemisphere’s weather permanently is the slowing down of the polar jet stream.

The polar jet stream of very strong winds at the top of the troposphere circles the northern part of the globe from west to east. It is the result of the rotation of the Earth and the temperature difference between the frozen Arctic and generally snow and ice free lands to its south. Temperature differences cause wind.  Today the temperature difference between the Arctic and land and water to the south is much less than it used to be. So the winds have slowed down.

A powerful polar jet stream forms a vortex and keeps the frigid Arctic air locked up near the Arctic Circle. This jet stream is never a perfect circle around the top of the globe. It has dips (“troughs”) and ridges in it.  When a trough comes over your area, e.g., state or region, we expect the storm track will move over you.  That probably means wet stormy weather, especially in the winter. A jet stream ridge allows high pressure to dominate to its south. In the spring, winter and fall this means not much precipitation.

High pressure can result in rain in the summer. Then, sub-tropical air comes up from the south and creates thunderstorms around the edges of the clockwise rotating high pressure area. These thunderstorms on the margin of the high pressure are called “the ring of fire.”

What are the effects of a weaker, slower polar jet stream?

As the Arctic loses its temperature difference from land and waters to the south, there is not  enough to create as strong a jet stream. Therefore, the troughs and ridges in the path of the jet become more pronounced. The jet stream now dives deeper to the south and retreats back further to the north in addition to its normal west to east circle around the globe. This means Arctic air will be pulled much further south one place and sub-tropical air much further north in another place  (often at the same time).

The strange events of March 2012-

Those who live in the eastern U.S. will remember last March when temperatures soared 30 to 50  degrees above normal, reaching highs of 90+ degrees in New England. The news media and talk in the street was all about the incredible warmth.  A distorted weak jet stream had allowed tropical air to drift far north.

The rest of the story didn’t get much attention, but as the jet stream retreated far north in the Eastern United States, at the same time it plunged all the way to Mexico in the West. It was cool and wet in the American Southwest. It snowed in southern Arizona desert and in northern Mexico. The jet stream became so deformed, it broke off  forming a “closed” or “cutoff” low pressure area.  While closed lows are not hurricanes, they can drop an amazing amount of rain because without a jet stream to push them along, the low just sits there and drifts around for days on end.  It can rain for a week or two. Of course, the news media did not tie the two events together, but as I watched the weather map, it was unforgettably strange.

Other effects of a weak jet polar jet stream-

If we can sum up the effects of a weak polar jet, it makes whatever weather we are having more persistent.  Rain storms move more slowly and so drop more water. Droughts form under very stable ridges because the ridges are slow to be pushed aside by the jet stream. They last much longer. One result is gigantic wildfire seasons. Mid-latitude temperatures show greater extremes. People think climate change means warmer temperatures. No, it is not so simple. Yes, the average temperature will probably rise, but more importantly the variations of the temperature around the mean temperature have grown in size.

Summer-like temperatures in the winter and in the early spring, or late autumn temperatures in the middle of the summer cause the most damage to crops, livestock, to wildlife and natural land cover, and ultimately to the economy. Because humans, plants and animals have learned or evolved to fit natural cycles, their change will prove destructive.

We all know that water is slow to heat and equally slow to cool.  Once ice has melted, a lot of heat must be shed before it refreezes, especially freezes deep. The Arctic Ocean melted much more quickly than predicted and all the efforts to curb greenhouse gases now will not refreeze it, except over a period of hundreds of years. We are once again talking climate change, but talk is cheap and maybe pointless because the climate has changed.

Our recognition comes far too late.

– – – –

Follow the jet stream, animated. http://squall.sfsu.edu/crws/jetstream.html

 

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

31 Responses to The Climate has already Changed and Won’t Change Back

  1. avatar Barb Rupers says:

    I hope that those affected by the storm have a place to vote and are able to get there.

  2. avatar mikepost says:

    Ralph, many are beginning to believe that Sandy will prove a seminal moment, late or otherwise, in the acceptance of global warming in the US. Much like the Cuyuga River fire of long ago that had so much impact on environmental law, it takes an epifany for the common man to see the light when dealing with complex and multi-layered issues that require sacrifice to address.

  3. avatar Jon Way says:

    The fact that there was no discussion about climate change during the debates or the masted million in attack ads is almost criminal. I can’t believe most Americans don’t seem to acknowledge this or think it is serious. It shows how scientifically illiterate the average American is, only thinking about there next paycheck and not have to pay taxes.

    • avatar Jon Way says:

      sorry “wasted” millions of dollars in attack ads (in my opinion at least)…

    • avatar WM says:

      ++It shows how scientifically illiterate the average American is,…+

      And that is a decidely significant flaw of our democracy in the 21st Century. We do not require sufficient proof of voter identity or even a basic indicator of literacy and awareness of what is going on in our world to participate in elections. Nor do we require “truth” in the campaign ads which oppose or support candidates and issue votes. We can thank the two party system for much of this, including the scientific ignorance part.

      • avatar Louise Kane says:

        WM its awful to see all the BS and lies. But then again thats what happens in national advertising with pharmaceuticals, food, everything. I hate listening to the pundits after a debate and they aren’t worried about whether a stance on an issue is correct, or stated by using facts. Instead you’ll hear a comment about how this candidate looked so presidential or kept his temper in check. Appalling. How do we get past this now, Americans are dummied down and used to it.

        • avatar Mark L says:

          Louise,
          When we’re all experts at judging perforrmances on ‘American Idol’….it’s what we’ve been trained to do! We need to ooh and ahhh the crowd, not fill their heads with real….
          (cue black helicopters by Mark L’s house)

      • avatar JEFF E says:

        It has never been a two party system.
        It has, over time, been foisted on the American citizen because there can only be two sides too the same coin….

  4. avatar Immer Treue says:

    Jon,

    “It shows how scientifically illiterate the average American is, only thinking about there next paycheck and not have to pay taxes.”

    I agree with the scientific illiteracy comment; however, the “average” American is just trying to get by, so that next pay check is important. Taxes, necessary evil, but who truly wants to pay them?

    • avatar Jon Way says:

      True IT,
      I guess the 2 parts of my statement don’t look great together as I am one that am not very far ahead financially given I work for the park service right now as my main paycheck and own a house…. However, it is very scary (even with paycheck in mind) that we are (as a society) ignoring climate change issues and yes, WM, the 2 party system is much to blame with no accurate info determining anything, or so it seems. I could never donate to a politician just knowing that I would be part of these ads that could be used/spent in so many other places.

  5. avatar Mark L says:

    Re: Arctic Ice
    Meanwhile, how’s the ice in the Antarctic? Reminds me of Einstein’s comments in the Forward section of Hapgood’s Earth Crust Displacement (ECD) stuff. It’s a precursor to plate tectonics, but fun reading. I’m not a doomer, but repeated similar anecdotal events WILL eventually add to something. What? …not sure.

  6. avatar Mark L says:

    Jon, money is like water….it’s gonna find its own level. If you follow the advertisement money down the rabbit hole where does it go? Media jackasses that spend it on stupid crap (inevitable) and overcharge parties for airtime. If people would just avoid 1 (one) form of media, they would lose the majority of their power. Maybe step away from the TV and assume more power?

  7. I think if the average American read articles like this, and was just presented with a basic overview of the facts concerning climate change, they would agree that it is important to prevent further damage from climate change. I wrote a short essay, trying to explain why, even those people who aren’t 100% convinced should care, and should vote. Take a look here http://maggiemcgreen.blogspot.com

  8. avatar Leslie says:

    I think several things happen to people’s brains when they try and think ‘climate change’. The people listening and cued in get overwhelmed; the other people listening stick their heads in the sand and say it’s not happening, and then everyone just goes back to driving their cars and enjoying their lifestyles.

    Meanwhile, sometimes my paranoid part wonders if the people with money/power are secretly preparing to house themselves somewhere safe while feeding lies to the public so the plebeians will disappear and the rich will inherit the earth.

  9. avatar alf says:

    Excellent post, Ralph ! You did a great job of condensing a very complex set of issues down to something even the typical climate change denier should be able to grasp.

    That said, once upon a midnight dark and dreary, I think is how it goes, some 50+ years ago, when I was in the service and was the corporal of the guard on the 12 to 4 watch, I remember reading an article in a popular magazine on the comings and goings of ice ages.

    The author argued that ice ages come about when the Arctic Ocean is ice-free, and the winds blowing across it pick up moisture from the open water, and drop it as snow on the land to the south, much like the “lake effect” snows that hit Buffalo, NY every winter. Over time, more snow accumulates than melts, it compresses into ice and forms continental glaciers and ice caps. (I don’t remember what he said broke that cycle, though.)

    I don’t recall having seen or heard any mention of that hypothesis since, so I assume it’s been generally discredited, but if the hypothesis is correct, contrary to the majority of thought, we might be at the start of another ice age, rather than a prolonged period of global warming.

    Just a contrarian thought. And I am NOT a climate change denier !!

    • avatar Ken Cole says:

      We’ve been getting “pingbacks” on this post, meaning that other sites are linking to it. The above video was contained in one of the posts. It is a good animation of the jet stream phenomenon that Ralph describes.

  10. avatar Mike says:

    People only tend to pay attention to science when its sitting on their front lawn. And Sandy did that.

    But, people will forget, become complacent. We are all guilty of it, enviro’s, fuel-hogs, etc.

    I make fun of many rural folk who whip past me on the interstate in 14 MPG trucks doing 95 (and who I then pass at gas stations), but they usually only have one house. I have environmentalist Prius-driving friends who have TWO houses, and pay to heat and cool and power them year round….

    I’m guilty of it when I drive too much.

    But, the best thing we can do is to vote for leaders. Real leaders. People who have the ability to get people to do the right thing.

    The best thing is to move towards efficient vehicles immediately. You know who you are, lol. That’s one way to reduce consumption and emissions. An immediate impact.

  11. avatar Richie G says:

    Well I could say it was bad by me boats were on people’s lawn a block in frm the river.A club on the river smashed through somebodies house,people throwing out furniture all over the place.I stiil do not have power,two kids in Staten Island got swept away from their parents in a wave,they found the two children miles away drowned miles away.A rollar coaster swept out to sea in sea side heights.The stories go on and on.Houses burned to the ground in Rockaway and by me. Boardwalks all gone Avon ,Belmar etc. Only one person knew about the movie inconvenient truth and the person knew it was by Al Gore.I really believe many people do not believe in this change or that we are to blame for a good deal of it

  12. avatar monty says:

    Tribalism may be the greatest impediment to convincing the climate deniers that this issue is “Here and Now. The deniers are so tied to the 20century community of fossil fuels, with it’s traditions and customs of routine pollution of air water and land, that they are blind to this reality. The fossil fuel undustry is like cave men tearing at the carcuss of the last mammoth on earth–where fairness and reason are abstract terms–and they are determined to get their piece of meat and to hell with the neighboring tribes.

    • avatar Salle says:

      monty,

      That and the fact that they are so distracted with all those toys that keep them from looking at or seeing the world around them. They are not willing to see that convenience is a sham and that their conveniences will be their undoing. And the will cry when they have to go about life without those conveniences because their main concerns will be the ability to breathe and foraging for food and water and shelter.

  13. avatar Mark Gelbart says:

    The author of this article is a professor of political science, not climate science.

    The recent hysteria linking Hurricane Sandy to global warming is an example of confusion between weather and climate.

    A hurricane is a weather event.

    Liberals often criticize conservatives who express doubt about climate change when a cold front occurs during winter by claiming the latter doesn’t understand the difference between weather and climate. Liberals using Hurricane Sandy to demonstrate global warming are guilty of the same ignorance.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Mark Gelbart,

      I agree with you that Sandy was not caused by climate change. Perhaps I didn’t make it clear in the article or make the article long enough. Climate change cannot and never will explain any particular event. Climate is simply a description of what the weather is like in a particular area or areas. When the climate changes that simply means that the typical weather has changed, such as the average high temp, low temp, temp variation, wind speed, precipitation, and much more.

      When I say the climate has already changed, I mean the typical weather has changed. So I am not referring to one weather event. It is the probability of many kinds of weather events that change. The Arctic Ocean has thawed. The polar jet stream has changed and so this changed the probability of many weather events. The past probability of various weather events will never change back because the Arctic Ocean cannot be refrozen except on a vast time scale.

      Your last paragraph shows you have an ideological perspective on this entire matter. As a political scientist that is easy for me to recognize. As a scientist I know that ideology should play no role in meteorology.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey