Looking Back on Climate: “Role of Weather Mysterious Despite Study (1977)”

Oil spills. Floods. Heat waves. Water wars. Biodiversity loss.

We live amid a torrent of news and information — including reports and controversies about the environment. It’s helpful to step out of the rushing stream occasionally and take a look back.

Here are two items I’ve been thinking about.

From dust to dust

First, a remark made by paleogeologist Tjeerd Van Andel (who recently passed away) about a quarter century ago in one of my college classes  managed to lodge itself in my (now increasingly addled) mind.

According to Van Andel, the United States benefited from an unusually stable weather cycle for the four decades following the Dust Bowl era of the mid-1930s. This stability coincided with and facilitated the rapid development of the American agriculture and economy across a period of modernization. This period, which includes the post-WWII boom, often serves as a baseline for comparison (or expectations).

Our still-growing understanding of global geophysical and socio-ecological systems shapes our interpretation of history — and informs planning for an increasingly complex future. Any beliefs regarding national exceptionalism, the causes of economic success, or our recent path of consumerism must be evaluated in the changing ecological or environmental context. Considering increasing climate variability and planetary boundaries, past experience is not a guarantee of future growth….

“People should be aware of the full range of what can happen.”

The second item is an article from the Toledo Blade, dated March 13, 1977. Given the past year’s climate controversies, this summer’s heat waves and floods, and Van Andel’s comments, it resonated with me. [I came upon the piece through Google Timeline, but that particular issue seems to be currently unavailable through the Google News link.]

Meteorologists and climate scientists have long been making the case that we should be better prepare for a more variable world. This article from over 30 years ago predates scientific consensus on man-made global warming — although even back then, climate scientists like Stephen Schneider and James Hansen had begun to recognize the warming trend. The National Weather Service meteorologists in this article, however, emphasize the need to build “resiliency” against more extreme weather patterns. The article mentions global population and development pressures and somewhat presciently identifies arid and semi-arid regions as particularly vulnerable; these regions have been in the news recently.

Also of note: the author, Robert Cowen, was the longtime science reporter/editor at the Christian Science Monitor. The world’s population in 1977 was roughly 4.2 billion (now around 6.6 billion). The largest city was Tokyo, followed by New York City. Carter was President. The cost of a gallon of gas was US$0.62 ($2.35 per liter). I was in junior high. Things change.

“Role of Weather Mysterious Despite Study”

By Robert Cowen

Don Gilman, chief of the U.S. National Weather Service’s long-range forecasting group, says he as mystified as anyone as to why North America has had such a rough winter.

You can’t see through the complex interactions of the atmosphere and ocean and say “This is the cause of that,’” he explains.

But one thing he feels certain – you don’t have to invoke a return of the Ice Age to account for it. Drought in the West, freezes in Florida, or a snow blitz in new York merely show what the present climate can do. And the hardships this is causing emphasize how vulnerable the United States, indeed the world, has become to what should be expectable extremes of weather.

“People,” Dr. Gilman says, “should be aware of the full range of what can happen.”

Years of analysis have produced only disagreement among the specialists as to long-term climate trends. But, on one point, they tend to put increasing emphasis – the recent past has been relatively kind as far as weather extremes are concerned in some important areas, such as the United States corn and wheat belts.

Living patterns evolved during milder years—modes of farming, energy consumption, land use, or transportation – often can’t take it when the weather turns nasty.

On a global scale, burgeoning population and economic development are putting so much pressure on resources that the surpluses of fat years are no longer adequate reserves for weather-related lean periods.

It is this loss of resiliency to cope with rare, but expectable, weather extremes that meteorologists believe to be the real climatic threat now facing the United States and the world.

Developers of arid and semiarid lands should be especially weather-wary. Such lands – for example, Africa’s Sahel, California, and the North American Southwest, or the Soviet Union’s “new” agricultural region – suffer most from unanticipated swings of weather.

“I haven’t seen anything like it since 1917-18,” says Dr. Gilman, adding by way of reassurance: “That winter broke in February, and we may see this one break too.”

Will this turn out to be a “once-in-50-years” winter unlikely to return for a long time, or could its pattern repeat next year? No meteorologist can answer this. But what Dr. Gilman and his colleagues do know is that what has happened can happen again. Moreover, the very fact that they can’t predict next winter suggests this possibility must be planned for.

“What people should do,” Dr. Gilman says, “is to figure it just isn’t safe to use only the past 10, 20 or even 30 years of weather data as a guide in weather-related planning. A much longer record is desirable – just as long a record as they can get.”

Update: I came across this article today: Water Scarcity in American Southwest Gets Serious. Indeed, the arid regions mentioned in the article have become recurring headlines in the news. (h/t @Blackdogworld and @InvasiveNotes)

Image credit: Tim Lindenbaum, Flickr/Creative Commons

Minor revisions: October 21, 2010

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